Question: Does Social Security pay you if you become disabled?

Answer: Sometimes. But they aren’t afraid to say no.

According to a 2004 General Accounting Office, Social Security Administration report, 60 percent of all first initial claims for Social Security disability benefits were rejected.

Your most valuable asset is your human capital — your ability to create value in the marketplace and, thereby, earn an income. Yet most people who wouldn’t think of leaving their home or auto uninsured (what if there was a fire?) leave their most valuable asset completely unprotected against loss.

If you earn $50,000 a year and have 30 years to go in your working life, you stand to earn $1.5 million over that period of time. Let’s assume you get a raise or two along the way (averaging 3 percent per year), you would earn about $2.5 million over that period.

If you owned a $2.5 million house, would you sleep well at night knowing that a fire might send your wealth up in smoke?

Life insurance is pretty straightforward — you’re either dead or you’re not. Disability insurance isn’t quite so simple.

For example, what does it mean to be disabled?

According to Social Security, you are “disabled” when you have a medical problem that will either kill you or keep you out of work for a year. Also, you must be unable to engage in any “substantial gainful activity.” And you get no benefits for short-term or partial disability. And benefits are very limited.

That’s a pretty narrow definition that leaves a lot of folks out.

It would be like buying a homeowners insurance policy that says the house has to completely burn to the ground before your claim gets accepted, and what you get is only enough to rebuild a much smaller house.

Clearly, Social Security disability coverage is meant only as a social safety net. A middle class or higher wage earner counting on Social Security to preserve their financial life in the event of a disability is likely to be very disappointed.

Speak to your agent about individual, private disability insurance.

Ask him about a policy with a definition of disability that takes into account your education, training and experience. You may even be able to get a policy that defines disability in terms of your specific occupation (often referred to as “Own Occ” coverage).

Inquire about coverage that pays you even if you are not totally disabled. Why have an incentive not to return to work? That could be the effect of a total-disability-or-nothing policy.

Because the cost of living is unlikely to stay level, your benefits should also be able to rise with inflation. Ask about any cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) features that may be available in any disability income insurance policy you are considering.

When will you benefits start? And how long do you want your benefits to last? A month? A year? Until you retire?

If you became disabled, your ability to save and invest for a future retirement would be severely compromised. You may wish to consider coverage that pays benefits for life.

Nobody wants to think about being disabled. But it can happen to anyone.

If you become disabled, Social Security may or may not pay you a benefit — it will depend on a lot of circumstance. Individual disability insurance can make sure that if a disability means you are out of work, it doesn’t also mean you’re out of luck.

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