Around one in four people will become disabled before they retire.  As you age, the chances of a disability due to an accident or illness only increase. But there's a way to make sure you have a safety net — disability insurance. Long-term disability insurance protects your paycheck, and by extension, your day-to-day life, if you can't work for an extended period of time — think years or even decades.
What is disability insurance?
Disability insurance is a form of income protection that pays out a benefit if you can’t work because of an illness or injury. The level of income replacement you can get and how long your disability benefits last varies by your policy and what type of disability insurance you have.
Long-term disability insurance lasts two years or up until retirement and can supplement other coverage.
Short-term disability insurance is usually tied to your employer and only lasts three to 12 months.
Social Security disability insurance is free, but notoriously difficult to qualify for.
What qualifies as a disability?
All insurance policies include a definition of disability, which explains the conditions you must meet in order to qualify for a benefit payment under your specific plan.
In most cases, you don’t need to be totally and permanently disabled to receive long-term disability insurance benefits. An injury or illness will qualify you for disability insurance benefits if you are either mentally or physically unable to complete your job, or if you have an impairment that substantially limits your ability to carry out basic life activities.
When you get disability coverage, the insurance company will further define your disability using the following terms:
Own-occupation disability means you can’t work at your regular job, even if you still might be able to work at another job.
Any-occupation disability means you can’t work any job.
→ Read more about what disability insurance covers
How long-term disability insurance works
Disability insurance pays out about 60% of your non-taxed income on a regular basis, just like a paycheck. Some people get long-term disability insurance as part of their employee benefits program, but it may not provide enough protection. Most people need their own long-term disability plan to get adequate coverage.
You can figure out how much coverage you need with our disability insurance calculator.
The way long-term disability insurance works is that you pay premiums for a long-term plan, and when you become disabled, you’ll file a claim with details about your diagnosis and proof that you are unable to work.
After the waiting period, you’ll begin to receive benefit payments. Disability insurance payments typically stop when you return to work, but you may be able to extend your coverage with a rider.
If you no longer need to keep your long-term disability coverage, you can always cancel your policy.
Long-term disability insurance benefits
It takes about 90 days before you can start receiving long-term disability benefits, which can last until you retire — unlike short-term disability benefits, which pay up to a year. You can use disability insurance benefits the same way you use your income: to cover everyday expenses, pay regular bills, and keep up with your larger financial plan.
Your long-term disability benefits usually aren’t taxable (unlike short-term insurance benefits), and you don't have to pay them back. They’re also typically larger than disability benefits from Social Security, which is why an individual long-term policy is the best way to protect your income.
→ Read more about how long disability insurance lasts
Do you need long-term disability insurance?
If you can’t go years or months without a paycheck without depleting your savings, you need long-term disability insurance.
Losing your income risks your ability to pay bills or support your family, which can lead to long-term financial consequences — 66.5% of all U.S. bankruptcies and more than 50% of all mortgage foreclosures stem from illness or injury-related medical issues.  And a disability is more likely than you think — over 25% of American workers become disabled before they retire, and on average the disability lasts more than three months at some point in their careers.
Disability insurance isn’t just for people who work dangerous jobs. You can become disabled no matter what you do for work — the majority of long-term disabilities are due to an illness rather than an accident. And if you took out loans for your education, getting disability insurance prevents you from falling behind on those payments.
Long-term disability insurance protects your most valuable asset — your ability to earn an income — and should be a part of every financial safety net. Even if you have short-term coverage from an employer, consider combining it with a long-term policy for more complete coverage.
→ Read more about why long-term disability insurance is worth it
How to get disability insurance
The application process takes about four to six weeks to complete. There are six steps to getting long-term disability coverage:
A licensed agent at Policygenius can help you get disability quotes and find a long-term policy that meets your needs.
How much does disability insurance cost?
You can generally expect to pay between 1% to 3% of your annual salary for a long-term disability policy. Costs are also affected by your occupation, and some disability insurance companies may offer better rates than others. Disabilities become more likely as you age, and rates will increase as you get older so it’s best to get a policy while you’re young.
→ Learn more about the cost of long-term disability insurance