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Disability insurance: What it covers, exceptions & alternatives

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When you rely on your income to support your family, it's difficult to envision life without it. But the unexpected can happen, and planning for a time without a paycheck can help you prepare for whatever life has in store.

Disability income insurance offers you some financial security if you can't work due to an injury or illness. What it covers depends on your contract, but you can expect most contracts to include some general provisions. If you're considering adding disability insurance to your financial strategy, here's what to know.

What does disability insurance cover?

A standard disability insurance contract typically covers serious health conditions, long-term illnesses and accidental injuries where you can't work for an extended period. Depending on your provider, it may cover chronic pain or a serious illness. However, disability doesn't require a significant illness or injury. For example, if you fall off a ladder during spring cleaning and break your arm, short-term disability could cover you during the months you can't work.

Examples of potentially covered disabilities

  • Musculoskeletal disorders 
  • Pregnancy complications 
  • Heart disease 
  • Cancer 
  • Diabetes 
  • Arthritis 
  • Digestive disorders 
  • Sprains and strains 
  • Sight or hearing loss 
  • Mental health issues 

What is covered by short-term vs. long-term disability?

You may have heard or seen some sources break disability insurance into "short-term and long-term" types.

Ultimately, they offer similar coverage, flexibility and income replacement, but different benefit period lengths. This overview may help.

Type of disability insurance

How long does it last?

Who offers it?

What does it cover?

How much of your income does it replace?

What is the waiting, or elimination period?


Usually 13-26 weeks.

Typically employers, but can be supplemented or provided through individual policies.

Most illnesses or injuries.

Generally 40-100% of your base income.

Within a couple weeks after disability.


Plans vary, but often up to retirement age.

Some employers, but mostly private insurance companies in the form of supplemental or individual coverage.

Most illnesses or injuries.

Generally 40-66 2/3% of your base income through group coverage, or up to 80% by adding an individual policy.

Typically 90-180 days after disability.

What does disability insurance not cover?

Disability insurance doesn't cover everything. While it can be a valuable addition to your financial strategy, carefully review your contract to understand what's excluded.

Examples of generally not covered disabilities

  • Crime-related injuries 
  • Self-inflicted injuries 
  • Certain preexisting conditions 
  • Workplace injuries (which workers' compensation insurance typically covers) 

Certain occupations may also be excluded, so review your contract's specific details to get a better idea of your coverage. Disability insurance also isn't intended to cover medical or long-term care services and generally doesn't provide benefits past retirement age.

Let's set the record straight
Protecting your income is vital for meeting your family's needs. If you haven't considered disability insurance, it may be because you've heard a few common misconceptions.

Find out exactly what disability insurance is and how it works.

What expenses do disability benefit payments cover?

You aren't restricted in how you can use disability income benefits. It's there to help you replace income and pay expenses while preserving your savings.

You can use the money you receive just as you would the income it's replacing, including paying for housing costs and lifestyle needs and even contributing to retirement savings. You can also put your disability benefits toward new medical bills or related expenses, such as home improvements and upgrades.

Is disability insurance through work enough?

Your employer may offer disability insurance as a work benefit. It's often short-term coverage, which may only last a year or two. However, the average duration of a long-term disability claim is nearly three years, and you may have to meet specific eligibility requirements to qualify for those benefits.

Plus, your employer-sponsored insurance is tied to your job. So if you lose it or leave for another role, your coverage doesn't go with you. If you don't have the savings to replace your income for that long, you may want to explore coupling work coverage with a long-term contract to help fill the gap.

Alternatives to disability insurance

Disability insurance can help protect your income and provide a safety net for your family when they need it most. However, no financial solution is one-size-fits-all. Several other options can also help cover your needs if you're out of work for an extended period.

Emergency fund

An emergency fund can help cover some of your immediate financial needs for a short period. But you may need more than the three to six months of expenses you likely have saved.

Social Security disability income

Another option is to turn to disability benefits through the Social Security Administration. However, these benefits only cover total disability and are difficult to qualify for. The average benefit is about $1,500 a month which may not be enough to cover your needs.1

Workers' compensation insurance

Workers' comp provides partial income replacement if you're injured or become sick on the job. It's generally regulated on a state-by-state level and required of most employers. But it only covers on-the-job injuries. So if you experience a non-work-related injury or illness, you can't receive these benefits.

These options may help cover some of your needs if you can't work. However, without income protection, you risk dipping into your savings or retirement accounts earlier than planned to help cover monthly expenses and lifestyle needs.

Get help building your safety net

Unexpectedly losing your ability to earn income can impact your family's needs over the short and long term. Disability insurance can protect your income in the worst-case scenario and help your family adjust financially and emotionally to the change in lifestyle. And it may be more affordable than you think.

If you're considering disability insurance and want to learn more about it, connect with a Thrivent financial advisor. They can help you determine how adding disability coverage can fit into your current financial strategy.

1 Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your situation, contact the Social Security Administration.

Disability income insurance contracts have exclusions, limitations, reductions of benefits and terms under which the contract may be continued in force or discontinued. For costs and complete details of coverage, contact your licensed insurance agent/producer.

If requested, a licensed insurance agent/producer may contact you and financial solutions, including insurance may be solicited.