How Do I File for Disability?

Tips for Applying for Social Security Disability

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Social Security Disability Insurance is a U.S. government program that provides financial assistance to people with disabilities who meet specific criteria. Benefits can be paid to you or certain family members. 

Unfortunately, only 22% of initial benefits applications are approved. To better your chances, we will review eligibility guidelines, ways to file, how to build your case, and other vital pieces of the Social Security disability benefits process. 

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides monthly governmental financial assistance to those who can’t work for a year or more because of a disability. 
  • To qualify for Social Security disability, you must have worked long enough in jobs covered by Social Security and have a medical condition meeting Social Security’s disability definition.
  • You should keep a full account of your symptoms and medical records. These are crucial in determining if your disability qualifies for benefits. 
  • Wait times for processing initial applications are typically between three and five months, so it’s best to apply early.

Tip 1: Know If You Are Eligible for Social Security Disability

The quickest way to find out if you might be eligible for benefits is to complete Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Benefits Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) questionnaire.

In general, to qualify for the SSA’s Disability Insurance benefits program, you must have: 

  • Worked long enough under Social Security: Depending on your age, you may need to have worked anywhere between an estimated 1.5 years to 9.5 years before you’re eligible. 
  • Have a medical condition preventing you from working: You must have limited ability to do basic work activities (lifting, standing, remembering, etc.) for at least 12 months or have a terminal condition.

Certain blind workers may only need to meet the first criterion. 

Under certain circumstances, your family members may qualify for benefits based on the amount of time you’ve worked, such as if your spouse is 62 or older or is caring for your child who is disabled or younger than 16. See SSA’s guidelines for a complete list. 

Tip 2: File a Social Security Disability Application

There are two ways to apply for disability benefits: 

  1. Fill out an online application.
  2. Apply in person at your local Social Security office. 

To apply locally, use the SSA’s office locator to find information on your nearest office, or call 1-800-772-1213, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time. You’ll be able to set up an appointment to either file a claim at your Social Security office or to file a claim by phone. The office will send you a Disability Starter Kit to help you prepare for the appointment. 

Those deaf or hard of hearing can call its TTY number at 1-800-325-0778.

Tip 3: Keep Good Records

It’s crucial to keep your own journal of what you’re experiencing to build a case for receiving disability benefits. You can then see specialists and doctors to get signed letters from them, if possible, that attest to your condition. 

You can submit these documents with your application, along with other critical pieces of information like:

  • Names and dosages of all medications you take
  • Names and contact information of doctors, caseworkers, hospitals, and clinics that treated you, along with visit dates and medical records you possess
  • Laboratory and test results

Tip 4: Be Consistent With Medical Treatment

The Disability Determination Services (DDS) team relies entirely on the evidence reported by doctors and others who have examined or treated you to determine whether your condition meets the SSA’s definition of disability. 

Because of this, it’s essential to be consistent with scheduling, receiving, and following up with medical treatments to give your disability examiner as complete and accurate a picture as possible of your disability as it looks today. 

Be sure to keep your health insurance throughout the process, even when long waits for benefits approval leave little room in your budget for the expense. Without medical evidence, you won’t be approved for your claim and may later be denied the continuation of benefits. 

You’re eligible for Medicare two years after you start receiving disability benefits, and then for as long as your disability meets conditions. Medicare Part A is free, but other Medicare parts, like Medicare Part B or Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C), are your responsibility.

Tip 5: Apply Early and Don’t Get Discouraged if Denied

The SSA advises that processing your application for disability benefits can take three to five months. So, it’s essential to get yours in as early as possible to start receiving your benefits faster.

Applications with diseases on the Compassionate Allowance List (CAL) or screened as Quick Disability Determinations (QDD) are put on the fast track, and may receive benefits sooner. 

Only about one in five initial applications are awarded benefits, so don’t get discouraged if yours isn’t accepted on the first try. You still have four levels of appeals you can go through to try to get your benefits approved.

You typically only have 60 days after receiving a notice of decision to request an appeal.

Appeals can also take from months to over a year to schedule, so it’s another reason to start your application process right away. You can check the status of your reconsideration or hearing through your “my Social Security” account. 

Tip 6: Get a Fast Answer

Under emergency circumstances, you can send a dire need letter to your local Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) to potentially expedite your hearing with an administrative law judge if you’re waiting to have yours scheduled. Dire need situations are instances where you lack and can’t obtain:

  • Food
  • Medicine or medical care
  • Shelter, including utilities that make your home uninhabitable, and imminent evictions and foreclosures

Your letter should include a detailed description and proof of your situation, such as eviction notices, copies of medical bills, and evidence of lost health coverage. 

Tip 7: Be Honest With Your Claim

You are obligated to report to Social Security whenever a change happens that could affect your benefits. And if you provide false information, you could have to repay overpaid benefits and go without your benefits for six months to two years, depending on whether it’s your first violation or not.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

How can I increase my chances of getting disability?

Be sure to fill out your application as completely as possible, being as accurate and detailed as you can about your medical history and symptoms. Also include thorough evidence of your disability as provided by health-care professionals. 

What conditions are considered for disability?

SSA has a list of 14 categories of conditions that qualify for disability, but unlisted conditions can also be eligible, if severe enough. 

How can I get disability for the first time?

Start by using the BEST questionnaire to see if you’re eligible or by talking with your local Social Security office. Then if you’re eligible, apply either online or by making an in-person or phone appointment with your local Social Security office. 

What diseases automatically qualify you for disability?

Diseases specified under the SSA’s Compassionate Allowances List (CAL) are sure to meet its disability standards and can expedite your disability determination time. These include specific cancers, adult brain disorders, and certain rare diseases affecting children.

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. "Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, 2018." Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.

  2. Social Security Administration. "Disability Benefits," Page 4. Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.

  3. Social Security Administration BEST. "Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits." Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.

  4. Social Security Administration. "Disability Benefits," Page 7. Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.

  5. Social Security Administration. "Disability Benefits | Appeal A Decision." Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.

  6. Social Security Administration. "Critical Cases." Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.

  7. Social Security Administration. "What You Need to Know When You Get Social Security Benefits." See Pages 8-9. Accessed Sept. 18, 2021.