Short-term (STD) and long-term (LTD) disability insurance help protect your income by paying a monthly cash benefit if you are unable to work. LTD can be purchased individually through an agent or with a group plan via the workplace; STD is usually purchased as part of a group plan through the workplace. In fact, many prominent disability insurers, such as Guardianonly offer short-term disability through employers.

Should you purchase a short-term plan as an individual? This article can help you decide by explaining: 

Why you need short-term disability insurance and long-term disability insurance

These two kinds of coverages are often complementary. In essence, they should work together to pay benefits that protect your income, as opposed to being an either/or choice. In many respects, LTD and STD policies do the same thing, replacing a portion of your income when you’re sick or injured and unable to work. The benefits you receive can be used for anything you need, including:

  • Rent or mortgage
  • Utilities
  • Credit card and loan payments
  • College or childcare 
  • Groceries 
  • Even things like going to the movies or dining out

Every policy – whether long term or short term – has five basic features:

  • Premium: The monthly or annual amount you (or your employer) pay for coverage. 
  • Benefit: The portion of your income you get each month you can’t work, usually between 50% to 80% of your monthly salary. 
  • Benefit period: The length of time you can receive benefits. For STD this will typically be 90-180 days; for LTD it could range from two years to retirement.
  • Waiting period: Also called the elimination period, this is the amount of time after you are disabled until you can start receiving benefits, typically 2 weeks for an STD policy, and 3-6 months for an LTD policy. The benefit period of your STD plan should match the elimination period of your LTD plan, to ensure there’s no lapse in income. 
  • Definition of disability: Every disability policy has a specific definition of what it means to be disabled in order to qualify for benefits. LTD plans take this a step further by defining “own-occupation” disability (you qualify if you can’t work in your field) or “any-occupation” disability (you only qualify if you can’t do work that you’re qualified for based on your education, training, and experience).

Why STD is sold separately from LTD

If STD and LTD both do the same thing, why are they split into two types of policies which are often purchased differently? There are a few reasons. 

For one, short-term disabilities are much more common than long-term disabilities, and coverage may be provided by the government. Also, people with temporary disabilities have different needs than those with more permanent disabilities. For example, in addition to pay replacement-related benefits, many group STD plans have a number of rehabilitation benefits and features. 

Short-term insurance can also be sold more efficiently as group coverage. People at a given company in a specific industry are more likely to experience the same kinds of disabilities, so it’s easier for the insurance company to calculate the risk involved. And coverage doesn’t need to be very personalized, because the desired outcome is the same every time: to get the disabled employee back to work with as little disruption as possible. 

By contrast, long-term disability needs are much more individualized. With a potentially much longer, larger payout, there’s more risk to the insurance company. The age, health status, lifestyle, and occupation of each person insured must be assessed. The benefit amount, period, and premium can vary significantly from one policy to the next. While LTD may be purchased as part of a group, it can be tailored more precisely to a policyholder’s needs when sold individually. 

As a result, STD coverage is most often provided by employers, as an affordable or no-cost group benefit to all employees. STD and LTD benefits are taxable if the premium is paid for by your employer, and non-taxable if paid for on a post-tax basis.

How to get short term disability insurance

Purchase an individual plan through your employer

If your company doesn’t provide STD coverage, you still may be able to buy it as a “voluntary” benefit (an optional benefit you pay for yourself):

  • Workplace plans can offer broader coverage, such as coverage for complications of pregnancy and childbirth. That’s important, because around 20% of women are prescribed bed rest when pregnant.3
  • Coverage you get through work will come at a lower group cost, even if you are paying the entire premium.

Purchase an individual plan through an agent or broker

There are a number of drawbacks to purchasing short-term disability insurance on your own:

  • Costs are usually higher compared to an employer plan with group rates.
  • Acceptance is not automatic: Underwriting (i.e., the insurer’s risk evaluation process) is more stringent, and they will want to assess your age, health status, and other factors before issuing a policy.
  • Pregnancy, if covered, will be considered a pre-existing condition if you are already pregnant. With a group policy, that may not be an issue.

Alternatives to getting your own short-term disability insurance

Mandated state plans 

  • Some states offer state-sponsored disability income protection for their residents. State-mandated and funded through employee payroll deductions, these plans are for non-work-related disabilities, and they provide short-term wage-replacement benefits to eligible workers. To see if your state offers this type of program, contact your state’s Department of Labor or Employment.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

  • FMLA lets eligible employees take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period for specified family and medical reasons. For more information on this Federal Law visit the Department of Labor website at

Accident insurance and critical illness plans

This is coverage that typically provides a cash payment – as opposed to ongoing disability income replacement – if you suffer an accident or are diagnosed with a major health issue. The benefit is paid even if you don’t miss work and can be used for any purpose. 

  • These types of plans are offered as a voluntary benefit by many employers.
  • Affordable plans can also be purchased directly from insurance companies such as Guardian.

Is short-term disability insurance worth buying as an individual?

Group STD benefits through work can be useful, because they provide valuable disability income often at little or no cost to the employee. But STD benefits purchased as an individual is a different story: plans tend to be expensive and come with a number of limitations. 

Many experts believe that individuals without employer-provided short-term disability are better off investing in a long-term disability plan, while relying on savings or one of the alternatives above for short-term needs. It’s an issue worth talking about with your financial professional; if you don’t have one, a Guardian financial professional can help you and even provide a long term disability insurance quote. To get the most out of your time, be prepared to share as much as you can about your financial situation and goals so that he or she can tailor your disability policy to better meet your short and long-term protection needs.

Frequently asked questions about getting short term disability coverage

Can you get short term disability somewhere other than an employer?

It’s possible, but not usually recommended. Individual policies cost significantly more than group policies purchased through the workplace, and the coverage comes with a number of limitations. 

What happens when short term disability runs out?

If you’re out on a disability claim and the short term disability runs out, your benefit payments will end. This is why one option is to have a long-term disability plan in addition to an STD plan to start replacing your income when your STD benefits run out.

How does accident insurance or critical illness coverage differ from STD?

STD replaces a portion of your salary each month (until the end of the benefit period) if you can’t work due to a disability caused by an accident or health issue. Accident and critical illness insurance pay a one-time benefit, depending on the severity of illness or injury – and that benefit is paid whether or not your illness or injury keeps you from working.

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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, New York, NY.

An individual’s eligibility for benefits is determined on a case-by- case basis, taking into consideration the factual circumstances presented as well as the terms and conditions of his/her policy(ies).

Individual disability income products underwritten and issued by Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America (BLICOA), Pittsfield, MA or provided by Guardian.  BLICOA is a wholly owned stock subsidiary of and administrator for the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY.  Product provisions and availability may vary by state.

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.

Guardian’s Group Disability Insurance is underwritten and issued by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, New York, NY.  Products are not available in all states. Policy limitations and exclusions apply.  Optional riders and/or features may incur additional costs. Plan documents are the final arbiter of coverage. This policy provides disability income insurance only.  It does NOT provide basic hospital, basic medical or major medical insurance as defined by the New York State Department of Financial Services.

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