Do I need short term or long term disability insurance?

The biggest difference between short term and long term disability insurance is the period of time you’ll receive benefits if you’re unable to work. This period is called the benefit period.

As the name indicates, short term disability insurance is intended to cover you for a short period of time following an illness or injury that keeps you out of work. While policies vary, short term disability insurance typically covers you for a term somewhere between 13-26 weeks and can replace anywhere from 40-70% of your income during that benefit period.

On the other hand, long term disability is intended to provide benefits for a longer period, and benefit periods for long term disability insurance are usually stated in years: 5, 10, 20, or even until you reach retirement age, depending on your plan.

Short-term disability insurance Long-term disability insurance
Lasts for 13-26 weeks Plans vary but typically 5 years to retirement age
Replaces 40-70% of base income Replaces 40-60% of base income
Short waiting period (also called elimination period) before receiving benefits For most carriers, 90 days is the most common waiting period, but they can be 30, 60, or 90 days, or even 6 months or a year.

Buying your own individual disability insurance

Individual vs. supplemental disability income insurance

Individual disability insurance can be ideal for anyone who doesn’t receive disability insurance through work. It’s also an option for high earners looking for extra coverage. Not only can you buy this policy on your own, it also stays with you even if you change jobs.

If you want more protection, you may want to add extra coverage on top of your long term or individual disability plan. Supplemental disability insurance can be a great add-on for employees and individuals who want to protect a greater percentage of their income, bonuses or commissions. You may even be able to get a policy through your work.

Factors that affect cost

There are several factors will impact how much you pay. Hazardous occupations, such as working with heavy equipment, might pay more than someone who sits at a desk all day. Your health also affects cost, as people with a history of disabling conditions such as back injuries, arthritis, and asthma could potentially pay higher premiums. Other factors include the elimination period, or the amount of time you must be disabled before a benefit is payable, and the benefit period, or the amount of time an insurance company will pay for a benefit.

Learn more about cost with our disability income insurance quote tool.

    How much disability insurance do you need?

    Disability insurance can help you fill in the gap between insurance you may get from work.

    To answer the question of how much insurance you need, start by estimating your current monthly living expenses, including:

    • Housing
    • Utilities
    • Food
    • Childcare
    • Loan payments
    • College savings or tuition
    • Retirement savings
    • Auto expenses
    • Any other regular expenses

    Other factors to consider:

    • How long can you wait before benefits start?
    • How long do you need benefits to last?
    • What would you consider disability? For example would you stop working if you couldn’t do what you do right now (own occupation disability insurance), or could you change occupations or accept a position that pays less than you currently earn, with insurance filling in the gaps.

    Get a quote

    Individual disability insurance features

    When shopping for a plan, ask about what features may be right for you. For example, many Guardian plans offer some of the following features:

    • Waiver of premium: Waiver of premium for disability is a provision in an insurance policy that states the insurance company will not require the insured to pay the premium if they are disabled and receiving benefits. Unlike most other insurance companies, we’ll also continue to waive premiums for six months after you recover and benefits end.
    • Hospice care benefit: If you’re admitted into a qualified hospice program, you’ll be considered totally disabled (eligible for benefits) and in many cases, the policy elimination period will be waived so you can receive benefits sooner. 
    • Unemployment premium suspension: Suspends premiums while you’re unemployed, allowing you to stop paying premiums but continue owning the policy. However, coverage is also suspended while you’re unemployed, so if you become disabled during that time, you won’t receive a benefit.
    • Occupational rehabilitation and modification and access benefit endorsement: Helps pay for occupational rehabilitation expenses plus the cost of modification to your work environment to accommodate physical limitations. 

    Plus, several optional disability plan riders are available:

    • Future increase option 3: This lets you increase coverage in the future as your income rises, without having to undergo a medical exam or provide proof of medical insurability.
    • Cost-of-living adjustment 4 (COLA): A rider that states the insurance company will increase your benefit to account for inflation.
    • Catastrophic disability benefits: Provides extra funds – up to 100% income replacement – if due to injury or sickness you are unable to perform two or more activities of daily living, are cognitively impaired or irrecoverably
    • Student loan protection rider 5: This optional benefit provides extra money to make student loan payments during the benefit period. It is particularly useful for early-career professionals such as doctors and lawyers who have invested heavily in their education.
    • Retirement protection 6: A rider that protects retirement savings by replacing the contributions you would have made to your defined contribution plan while totally disabled.
    • Unemployment waiver of premium: Waives your premiums while you’re unemployed, allowing you to stop paying premiums but continue owning the policy. You may remain eligible for disability benefits should you become disabled during that time, since your policy remains active. 
    • Social insurance substitute: This monthly benefit coordinates with payments received under Social Security and some other government programs. 

    Other types of individual disability insurance

    • U.S. government disability benefits
      Government-provided disability is available to Americans (and in narrow circumstances, certain non-U.S. citizens) as part of the federal government’s Social Security Administration benefits, known as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

      You can qualify for this assistance if you are judged to be disabled by U.S. federal standards.  A person is disabled under the Social Security Act if they can't work due to a severe medical condition that has lasted, or is expected to last, at least one year or result in death. While some programs give money to people with partial disability or short-term disability, Social Security does not.

      While there’s a maximum limit per person of $2,788 per month, the average person receives just $1,234 per month ($12,140 per year).7
    • States that offer short-term disability insurance
      Currently the states of California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico require employers to offer a form of short-term disability, but each has its own requirements and limits. For information, visit.

    Why you need disability income protection before you’re sick or injured

    • Apply while you’re healthy. You get the most favorable terms by buying individual disability income insurance before you need it. Once you’re too sick or injured to work, you usually can’t get the protection you need.
    • Lock in pricing. Once you have your non-cancellable and guaranteed renewable policy, the amount you pay each month is guaranteed, and the insurance company can never cancel your coverage as long as you make your payments on time.  
    • Secure coverage while on the path to your career. If you’re studying to become a professional such as a doctor, dentist, or a lawyer, you can apply for insurance before you graduate, with options to increase coverage as your income grows.
    • Customize your coverage. You can select options to customize your protection. These options can let you increase coverage as your income grows and help keep pace with the cost of living. You can even buy coverage to help you replace your retirement plan contributions or protect your ability to repay student loans during a period that you can’t work due to sickness or injury.

    Keep student loan payments on track

    You can protect from $250 to $2,500 per month in student loan payments. Download the PDF to learn more about this option.

    Dealing with the unexpected

    Unexpected medical problems can get in the way of working and earning an income. See how these families relied on their financial professionals and individual disability income insurance from Guardian to make sure they had the coverage they need to continue living their lives.

    Protecting what matters

    Forward-looking financial planning helped Dr. Tullos and his family focus on the things that really matter.

    There when you need us

    Learn how disability income insurance helped Dr. Kardani secure his family’s financial future and allowed him to focus on maintaining his own health

    Are you an employee? Employees, contact your employer.

    Are you an employer? Employers, talk to your broker.

    Are you a broker? Offer your clients a disability insurance program.


    How long do I need to have individual disability insurance policy before a claim is paid?

    As with all private insurance, your policy must be in effect – meaning set up and paid – and the elimination period (time between a disability and payment) must be met before it will pay on a claim..

    How much income is protected by individual disability insurance?

    A short term disability policy typically replaces 40-70% of base income and lasts for 13-26 weeks. A long term disability policy replaces 40-60% of base income; plans vary but typically the policy can last from five years to retirement age.

    Can you keep your disability insurance if you change jobs?

    Yes, it stays with you even if you change jobs.

    Get a long term disability insurance quote
    Go now


    1 Integrated Benefits Institute, 2018 Health and Productivity Benchmarking, Long-Term Disability.

    Social Security Fact Sheet, June 2022.

    3 Conditions and limitations apply. Medical Information is not required when exercising an option for additional coverage. Taken into consideration are your income, occupation and employment, as well as all disability insurance in force, for which you’ve applied or are eligible to receive. Coverage may not be added while you’re disabled, when benefits are payable, or during a suspension period.

    4 This benefit is not necessarily protection against increases in the cost of living.

    5 The Rider provides coverage for period of 10 or 15 years from the Policy Date. When a qualifying total disability occurs, benefits are only payable during the remaining portion of the 10- or 15-year term that has not elapsed when the disability begins.

    6 Retirement Protection Plus is not a pension plan, qualified retirement plan or qualified individual retirement account or a substitute for one.


    Individual disability income products underwritten and issued by Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America, Pittsfield, MA, a wholly owned stock subsidiary of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, or provided by Guardian. Product provisions and availability may vary by state. Optional riders are available for an additional premium. 

    This website is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered tax or legal advice. Please contact your tax or legal advisor regarding the tax treatment of the policy and policy benefits. You should consult with your own independent tax and legal advisors regarding your particular set of facts and circumstances. The information provided is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be relied upon, to avoid penalties imposed under the Internal Revenue Code or state and local tax law provisions.

    This material is intended for general public use. By providing this material, Guardian is not undertaking to provide investment advice for any specific individual or situation, or to otherwise act in a fiduciary capacity. Please contact a financial professional for guidance and information specific to your individual situation.

    Links to external sites are provided for your convenience in locating related information and services. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees expressly disclaim any responsibility for and do not maintain, control, recommend, or endorse third-party sites, organizations, products, or services and make no representation as to the completeness, suitability, or quality thereof.

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