Do I have to file for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)?
Filing for Social Security Disability benefits is “required” when filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits under FERS. This additional step, however, has always been somewhat confusing and problematic. Why does the Federal or Postal employee who is filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits have to file for SSDI, anyway? What are the consequences of being denied (which most Federal and Postal employees are, anyway)? What happens if the Federal or Postal employee who is filing for FERS Disability Retirement benefits becomes approved for SSDI?
The process of filing a Federal Disability Retirement application is fraught with major obstacles, confusing administrative procedures and complex, almost unintelligible roadblocks – not least of which is the requirement to file for Social Security Disability benefits with the U.S. Social Security Administration. Most Federal Agency Human Resource Offices will tell you that you “must” file for Social Security benefits before applying for FERS Disability Retirement benefits, as if such a step is a prerequisite for even a preliminary consideration of a Federal Disability Retirement application. Indeed, most Federal Agency H.R. Offices, and even the U.S.P.S. Shared Services Office in Greensboro, North Carolina, will not process a Federal Disability Retirement application unless there is some evidence that an SSDI application has been filed. Is this truly what the law requires? And, more importantly, how far does one have to go in meeting the requirement – merely a cursory effort to satisfy the formality, or must one wait until all appeals are exhausted (which, for SSDI procedures, could potentially take years, by which time the 1-year statute of limitations to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits may have lapsed)?
FERS Disability Retirement and SSDI Offset
The plain fact is that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management doesn’t care a twit about Social Security Disability Insurance – unless it is approved, and that, only if the FERS Disability Retirement application is also approved. For, if both are approved (FERS Disability Retirement & SSDI benefits), then the law requires an offset between the two – 100% offset in the first year of concurrent payments (where the FERS annuitant would receive 60% of the average of one’s highest 3 consecutive years of service), then a 60% offset during the subsequent concurrent years of payments (where the FERS annuity is paid at 40%). It is the offset itself which OPM is concerned about, and since Social Security payments are primary (meaning that the SSDI payments are paid in full) while the FERS Disability Annuity is “secondary” (where the offset occurs by reducing the amount of the FERS Disability Annuity by the percentage of legally-mandated offset required), OPM is concerned that an approval of SSDI benefits will therefore impact the amount of annuity payments calculated by OPM’s disability retirement payments.
How does the interactive process work – between filing for a FERS Disability Retirement and Social Security Disability Insurance? Here is an example:
A Federal or Postal worker starts to prepare filing for a Federal Disability Retirement application, and begins completing the SF 3107 series of forms, as well as the SF 3112 series. As part of the process, he or she is told that one must apply for Social Security Disability Insurance, and attach proof of such filing along with the other Standard Forms for a Federal Disability Retirement application. He does so – files, knowing that it will be denied, especially since he is technically still “employed” by the Federal agency or the Postal Service. He asks himself, “Why do I need to file”? The reason: That is the law, and whether the law makes sense or not, it is a requirement. The FERS retirement paradigm has always been based upon a 3-pegged financial system: The Federal Retirement; Social Security; the TSP (Thrift Savings Plan). When one is accessed (the retirement itself), then the other component (Social Security) must also be applied for. Having filed, the requirement is satisfied. Questions: Do you need to do anything more? Can you just not put much effort into it? If the SSDI filing is denied, must you appeal it? The answers: No, yes and no. Postscript: Once you receive an approval for your Federal Disability Retirement application, will you have to file again when you are no longer employed? Not necessarily; however, if OPM asks you to re-file, then you should go ahead and file with the SSDI Office once again. What are some of the factors to consider as to how aggressively you may want to pursue Social Security Disability benefits when concurrently filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits? Here are some factors to consider:
First, as stated earlier and reiterated again, understand that there is an offset between FERS Disability Retirement annuity and Social Security Disability Insurance benefits – a 100% offset in the first year of concurrent benefits with a FERS annuity at the 60% rate; then, a 60% offset during all subsequent years (until recalculation at age 62) while FERS benefits are paid at the 40% rate. Since Social Security is “primary”, the offsetting reduction is applied to as against the FERS Disability annuity. However, Social Security has a very low threshold of capacity to earn any income before you “lose” it (normally somewhere in the range of $1200 – $1300 per month), and so if the FERS Disability Annuitant plans on working at some private sector job making more than the threshold amount, it may not be worthwhile to even pursue Social Security Disability benefits aggressively. Contrast the low threshold under SSDI against the allowable amount for a FERS Disability Annuity: You are allowed to make up to 80% of what your former position currently pays.
An example of the FERS-SSDI offset calculation
Thus, by way of example: Hypothetical Annuitant A: A former Postal worker made $55,000.00 per year (and, for purposes of making this example simple, the same amount for the average of his highest-3 consecutive years of service.) Thus, in the first year, he receives $33,000 as his FERS annuity (60% of $55,000), and in the second year, $22,000 as his FERS annuity (40% of $55,000). Rounding off the numbers to simplify, let’s say that it comes to around $3,000 per month for the first year, then $2,000 per month for the subsequent years. The former Postal worker also gets SSDI approved, and the amount comes to $2,000 per month.
How does the offset work? Well, as SSDI is “primary”, the Postal worker would receive $2,000 from Social Security the first year, and $1,000 from his FERS annuity (as 100% of the SSDI payment is offset against the FERS payment), and in the second and subsequent years, he would receive $2,000 from Social Security and $800.00 from FERS (as 60% of the SSDI payment is offset against the FERS payment). If Annuitant A works at a private-sector job and makes $1,000 per month, all well and good – for, that amount would not exceed the threshold for either the FERS Disability Retirement annuity nor the SSDI allowable amount. If, however, he goes out and makes $2,000 per month, or some higher amount that violates the allowable threshold for Social Security, then he will lose the SSDI benefit, and any prior offset with FERS will be recalculated to allow for the full annuity.
Should I pursue Social Security disability benefits?
Thus, the factors that one should consider when pursuing Social Security Disability concurrent with a FERS Disability Retirement application, should take into account the following questions:
- Will I be working at a private sector job, and if so, how soon after I begin receiving a FERS Disability Retirement annuity, and approximately how much will I expect to be making?
- While the combination of FERS Disability Annuity and the SSDI payments will net me more, will it be worthwhile if I go out and get a job that exceeds the Social Security threshold of acceptable limits? For, as a practical matter, while the offset against a FERS annuity payment is supposed to be recalculated by OPM if the SSDI benefit is lost, the reality is that OPM is a large and rather unresponsive bureaucracy, so that getting the full benefit back will often take up a great amount of time – several months, at least.
- Do I expect to work at a private sector job that will make pursuing SSDI impractical, and therefore should I put in the minimum effort necessary to simply comply with the requirement of filing for SSDI?
These are some considerations that should be thought through during the initial stage of the process. In theory, getting approved for SSDI and getting both the FERS annuity, as well as the SSDI benefit – even with the offset – would seem to be a “no brainer” given that the combination of both will almost always net you more money. However, a caveat on what has been occurring more and more is in place. The “Offset” between the FERS Federal Disability Retirement annuity and SSDI payments is supposed to happen automatically.
One would think that, in this computer-age of technological advancement, cross-checking based upon Social Security numbers and other identifying factors would be fairly commonplace and automatic. Think again.
Many hundreds, if not thousands, of Federal and Postal Federal Disability Retirement annuitants receive notification years later of an “overpayment” that must be repaid and reimbursed – amounting to, in some cases, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. How and why does this occur? Quite simply, because the two agencies – OPM and the Social Security Administration – never communicated with each other, never cross-checked the payments, and most importantly, never offset the required amount. Thus, the Federal or Postal worker who was approved both for FERS Disability Retirement benefits, as well as SSDI, received two “full” checks, and continued to deposit both and spend both amounts.
Now, some would say: Well, yes, repaying the government is only fair – you should have known that the offset wasn’t happening, and you should have “set aside” the amount of the offset knowing that you would one day be “caught” accepting both. Without making a judgmental comment on such a perspective, the reality is that, whether the Federal or Postal dual-annuitant knew, didn’t know, didn’t think he or she would be “caught” or be forced to repay the amount of the overpayment, the simple fact of the matter is that overpayment based upon the incompetence of the Federal bureaucracy occurs all too often, and because the funds from a FERS Disability Retirement comes from the U.S. Government, when the oversight of overpayment is caught, the best you can do is to negotiate the most advantageous repayment plan possible.
Finally, a closing thought on the case of Stephenson v. OPM – a major case won by this author, argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, decided on January 18, 2013. In that case, OPM had steadfastly refused to restore the full amount of a FERS Disability Retirement annuity despite the loss of the offsetting SSDI benefits, arguing that there was a period where the annuitant remained “entitled” to SSDI benefits despite not actually receiving any money from the Social Security Administration. OPM refused to recalculate and restore the FERS Disability annuity amount and continued to offset a phantom payment merely because a person was still hypothetically “entitled” to the amount. That issue is now resolved because of the decision in Stephenson v. OPM, but a caveat concerning offsets is in order, here.
Theoretically and legally, one can get approved by SSDI, work, earn an amount that exceeds the SSDI threshold, then request that OPM restore the previously offset amount and recalculate so that the full FERS Disability annuity is received. However, as a practical matter, OPM is a large and cumbersome bureaucracy that takes forever to respond. Just keep that in mind. Thus, with any and all issues concerning SSDI, offsets and FERS Disability Retirement, keep the following close to heart: You may be “right”, but it may take a long, long time to recover – whether on the issue of restoration and recalculation of a lost benefit; whether it concerns overpayment; or any other issue concerning SSDI, FERS Disability Retirement annuity and the interacting, offsetting features between the two. Thus, as with everything else, plan accordingly.
Robert R. McGill, Esquire
Federal Disability Attorney
Robert R. McGill is an attorney who specializes in Federal Disability Retirement, a practice area he dedicates 100% of his time helping Federal and Postal workers secure their disability retirement benefits under both FERS and CSRS. For more information about his legal services, publications and forum, please visit his Federal Disability Attorney website.