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Individuals eligible for Social Security benefits may be able to receive payments for part of the time period before the official start date of benefits. In this article, we’ll explain the concepts of retroactive benefits and back pay as they apply to Social Security disability, retirement, and Supplemental Security Income benefits. 

Key Takeaways

  • Retroactive benefits are benefits covering the period of time between an individual becoming disabled and applying for Social Security disability benefits 
  • Retroactive benefits are available for up to six months’ worth of payments for individuals who begin taking retirement benefits after the full retirement age
  • Back pay covers the period of time between an individual’s application date and approval date
  • Back pay is available for individuals receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits, but retroactive benefits are not

What Are Retroactive Benefits for Disability Benefits?

For individuals who are eligible for Social Security disability benefits, retroactive benefits may be available for the period of time between the date that they became disabled and the date that they applied for disability benefits. Retroactive benefits are available for up to one year prior to the application date, assuming the individual was eligible at the time of application. 

What Are Retroactive Benefits for Retirement Benefits?

For Social Security retirement benefits, retroactive benefits may be available for those who begin to take benefits after reaching full retirement age. Individuals who apply one to five months after full retirement age can receive a lump sum for that number of months. Those who file six months or more past full retirement age are eligible for up to but no more than six months of retroactive benefits. 

Note that collecting retroactive benefits results in losing delayed retirement credits. This will permanently reduce monthly benefits payments by two-thirds of one percent for each month of retroactive benefits. For a six-month retroactive payment, this is a total of four percent. For this reason, it may not always be advantageous to collect retroactive benefits. 

What Is Back Pay for Disability Benefits?

For Social Security disability payments, back pay is available for the time between the date of applying for benefits and the date of approval for benefits. Back pay is intended to cover the amount of money that is lost during the Social Security application processing time. This is especially important as the Social Security Administration deals with a backlog of applications resulting in a delay in approvals.

Unlike retroactive benefits, back pay has no limit. Theoretically, one would be eligible for back pay for as long as it takes for the Social Security Administration to approve their application, as long as that may be.

Note that the five-month waiting period that applies to Social Security disability benefits may affect retroactive benefits and back pay. They will only apply beginning five months after the onset date of the qualifying disability. 

What Is Back Pay for SSI Benefits?

Back pay is also available for individuals receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. However, retroactive benefits are not. For individuals receiving Supplemental Security Income or both Supplemental Security Income and disability benefits, back payments may be paid in installments six months apart. For those receiving only disability benefits, back pay and retroactive benefits will generally be paid as a lump sum.

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