How to apply for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits

If a serious illness or accident has left you unable to work, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. Here’s what you need to know before you apply.

by Jane Haskins, Esq.
updated February 23, 2023 ·  5min read

Most people think of Social Security as a monthly payment they’ll receive when they reach retirement age.

But if you have a disability or illness that leaves you unable to work, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits long before you reach age 65. Those benefits can provide a valuable source of income when you are ill and have no other way to support yourself.

If you apply for Social Security Disability benefits, be prepared for a lengthy and frustrating process. Obtaining required medical documentation and getting it reviewed by overworked Social Security employees can take months, and you may have to file an appeal before your benefits can be approved.

Who is eligible for Social Security Disability?

The Social Security Administration oversees two programs that provide monthly payments to people who are disabled: Social Security Disability (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Both programs require you to be either totally disabled for at least a year, or dying. There are no benefits for people who are partially disabled or temporarily unable to work.

To be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, your disability must make it impossible for you to continue working in your most recent job, or in any other job, taking into account your age, education, skills and past work experience.

In addition, you must have contributed money to the Social Security system while you were working. The amount of disability benefits you receive will depend on your average lifetime earnings. You may also be eligible for benefits based on a parent or spouse’s work history.

Social Security may also make payments to some of your family members because of your disability.  These include your current or former spouse and your children, depending on their ages and other circumstances.

SSI benefits are available to low income people who have not paid enough money into the Social Security system to qualify for SSD.

How to apply for Social Security Disability

The Social Security Administration has an online Social Security Disability application form on its website, or you can apply for disability benefits by phone or in person at your local Social Security office.

Although that sounds simple, you’ll first need to gather quite a bit of information, including the following:

  • Information about your current and former spouses, including names, birthdates, Social Security numbers and marriage and divorce dates.

  • Names and birth dates of your children who are under 18, still in high school, or who became disabled before age 22.

  • Information about your military service, including the dates you served.

  • Employment information for the current year and the previous two years, including your employer’s name, the start and end dates of your employment and the amount of money you earned.

  • A list of your medical conditions.

  • Information about the health care providers you’ve seen, including their names and addresses, the dates you saw them, your patient ID numbers, the names and dates of medical tests and who prescribed them, and the names of any medications you take.

  • Information about your work history, including when you became unable to work and the type of work you’ve done for the past 15 years.

  • Information about your education and vocational training.

As part of the application process, you’ll sign a medical release form that allows the Social Security Administration to obtain information directly from your doctors, and you’ll have the option of mailing in any medical records that you have in your possession.

What happens after I apply?

The Social Security Administration will send you confirmation that they received your application and will contact you if they need any additional information or documents. Once all information has been gathered, they will process your application and notify you of their decision. They will also notify you if anyone else can receive benefits because of your disability.

It’s difficult to predict how quickly you may receive a decision on your Social Security Disability status, but many disability applications are initially denied. If that happens, you can appeal the decision to an administrative law judge. The appeals process may take several months, since a hearing will have to be scheduled. If your appeal is denied, you can file additional appeals with the Social Security Appeals Council and in a federal district court.

Because the application process can proceed slowly, it’s a good idea to apply for benefits as soon as you are eligible.

Is there a way to speed up my application?

To some extent, delays in processing Social Security Disability applications are due to the workload in the Social Security office. Other common reasons for delay include incomplete or inaccurate information on the application or delays in getting health care providers to respond to requests for medical records.

You can help speed up your application by making sure that you have completed all of the application and have provided as much detailed information as possible about your work history, medical condition and disability. If you can send copies of your medical records, that will cut down on the time it takes to obtain records from doctors and hospitals.

If your condition is serious enough, you may qualify for expedited processing. Certain conditions, including many cancers, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, automatically qualify for disability payments as soon as the diagnosis can be confirmed. Other serious conditions qualify for a quick disability determination based on computer predictions of the likelihood of benefits being awarded. Expedited processing is also available for wounded warriors.

Social Security Disability is a valuable safety net for people grappling with a serious illness or injury. To improve your chances of getting benefits quickly, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as you can, provide as much detailed information as possible, and respond promptly to any requests for more information.

Unsure if you qualify for Social Security Disability benefits? Get a free evaluation of your case by a participating law firm.

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Jane Haskins, Esq.

About the Author

Jane Haskins, Esq.

Jane Haskins is a freelance writer who practiced law for 20 years. Jane has litigated a wide variety of business dispute… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.