The Different Definitions of Disability

Deciphering the different definitions of disability is a surprisingly complicated process. Some of these definitions can be found in almost every policy, while some use attachments or riders to tweak the policy language. While the exact terminology may be different, there are five basic definitions of disability that are important to understand if you’re considering filing a claim for benefits or even if you’re just trying to decide what type of coverage to purchase.

  1. Own Occupation. Simply put, this definition defines you as totally disabled if you can no longer perform the material and substantial duties of your occupation. Some policies will even consider you totally disabled if you are unable to perform just one of the material and substantial duties of your occupation. If you are being paid benefits under an own occupation disability policy, you may be able to go back to work in a different type of job and still be entitled to benefits as long as you’re unable to perform the job from which you were declared totally disabled. Because of this liberal definition, these policies are usually more expensive and harder to obtain.  
  2. Any Occupation. This definition is almost the opposite of Own Occupation. You’re only considered totally disabled if you cannot perform the duties of any occupation. Usually, the policy will include language that takes into consideration your education, training, experience, and earnings level as well.  This prevents the insurance company from trying to envision you in a job for which you’re under-qualified or over-paid just to end your claim. This definition is often found in cheaper, group policies and can be challenging to collect benefits without strong medical evidence and very debilitating conditions.
  3. Split Definition Coverage. While this isn’t a definition of disability in and of itself, this definition is very common in disability insurance policies so it’s worth discussing. Many policies have definitions of disability that switch from Own Occupation to Any Occupation after a period of time that can range from 6 months to 5 years. Anyone receiving disability benefits under this type of coverage should be extremely wary leading up to this transition date, as insurance companies often plan for how to stop paying benefits around that time.
  4. Presumptive Total Disability. Regardless of your policy definition of disability, certain catastrophic injuries or illnesses are automatically considered totally disabling. These often let you skip some of the requirements that must be met to be considered totally disabled. You’re allowed to receive benefits immediately after the elimination period that will continue even if you return to work. The medical events that fall under this definition include the loss of sight in both eyes, loss of hearing, loss of speech, the use of both hands, the use of both feet, or the use of one hand and one foot. These losses must be complete. Different policies can have slightly different qualifications for Presumptive Disability and not all of the ailments listed above will qualify under every policy.
  5. Residual Disability. The first four definitions have been about Total Disability, but this isn’t the only way to qualify for benefits. Some policies include definitions of disability that will pay you a portion (or all) of your benefits if your work level and/or earnings are reduced. Under Residual Disability, claimants are paid benefits based on the relative amount of income they’ve lost due to their disability. This is calculated through a formula that takes into account the disabling condition and the percentage of pre-disability income the claimant continues to earn. Be aware – some cheaper policies include a clause that requires the claimant to have been totally disabled for a while before they’re able to collect residual disability benefits. There are two ways to purchase Residual Disability coverage: you can either purchase a Total Disability policy with a Residual Disability rider or you may purchase what is often called an income replacement policy. Income replacement is another term for residual coverage and can be the cheaper of the two option since it lacks specific Total Disability coverage.
  6. Partial Disability. This definition is very similar to but slightly different from Residual Disability. The main difference is that Partial Disability does not consider the loss of income calculations when determining the benefit amounts. Rather, if you’re considered partially disabled, the policy will pay you 50% of the total disability benefit amount. Partial Disability is also not offered as a standalone policy and is either included as a rider to a policy or as the base coverage in some rare policies. Benefits periods for Partial Disability are often much shorter, usually not extending beyond 6 to 12 months.

Even if your injury or illness may fit into one of these policy definitions, it doesn’t always mean you will receive benefits. There are many other policy considerations, such as appropriate care or diagnosis limitations, that can decide whether or not you’ll be able to collect your benefits. If you’re considering filing a disability claim and are not sure of the definitions in your policy, or if you’re not sure if you qualify for benefits under your policy’s definition, please call our firm toll-free at (855) 828-4100 or sign up for a free consultation on our website. We can help you get the answers you need to get the benefits you deserve.

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