How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits

A life changing accident or illness can possibly be so severe as to prevent a person from being able to work and subsequently earn a living. An inability to perform a paying job has repercussions on a personal level and may impact a whole family as well.

This type of eventuality is one of the core reasons that the Social Security Administration was created and also why we pay taxes towards its collective fund. Decades of hard work help pay into the system so that if a person finds themselves unable to earn a living due a physical issue they can still receive an income from the government.

Some people do not understand how disability insurance works while others may be reluctant to seek help. This post is intended to help those who are eligible sign up for disability benefits through Social Security.

What Is Social Security Disability Insurance?

Commonly referred to as SSDI, Social Security Disability Insurance is a program that is run through the Social Security Administration. It is a payroll funded federal insurance program which receives its funding from Social Security tax withholdings.

The program is designed to supply monthly benefits to people who have a medically verifiable physical or mental disability. If these disabilities restrict the person's ability to be employed then the SSDI program steps in to help.

It is not a partial or temporary benefit as this program only pays full benefits. They will only authorize these benefits if the disability will last at least one year or will ultimately lead to death. This is a federal level program but the individual states do have their own more limited programs which tend to be less restrictive than SSDI.

This program is often confused with SSI, Supplemental Security Income which is a different program that also helps those with disabilities. In the case of SSI it is for disabled adults, children and the elderly who do have an income but it is not sufficient to cover basic needs.

Social Security Disability Benefits

Those who through injury, physical illness or mental illness who are unable to work may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits. The amount and type of these benefits will depend on a person's work history. If they have a sufficient enough work history they may qualify for the SSDI program.

Generally speaking a person has to have been a part of the U.S. workforce for at least 10 years to qualify for this specific program. Additionally the disability question must have persisted for or is expected to persist for at least 12 months. In situations such as terminal illness applicants may qualify immediately.

Those who do not have the requisite work history will likely not get SSDI but they may qualify for a state funded temporary disability or the SSI program. The medical requirements for both SSDI and SSI are the same bit they differ in terms of work history and some other minor details.

If you have non work related income or savings you can still apply for SSDI but you would not be eligible for SSI. The reason for this is that SSI is an income determined program so your annual income must fall below or within 135% of the federal poverty limit.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits

There are a number of options available for applying for SSDI benefits although for a long time there was no choice but to visit a Social Security office. Thankfully this is not the only option anymore as those struggling with disabilities might find even visiting the office a herculean task.

Applying Online

As with all things online this is the quickest and easiest way to start an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Those with mobility issues or perhaps mental disabilities may find this a far more palatable way to apply.

Those who perhaps feel embarrassed to have to apply may also find it easier to take this route. There is nothing wrong with being proud but there is also nothing wrong with admitting you need help.

In order to place an application you will need to visit the website so you can complete an online disability application form. This is essentially the same form you would complete if you were to go to a physical office location.

You will need to supply certain basic information such as

  • Full name
  • Social Security number
  • W-2 forms from your most recent employment
  • Description of your medical condition
  • Medical records and test results
  • Any other supporting documentation regarding your disability

Applying Over the Phone

Some people may feel more comfortable speaking with a Social Security representative regarding their application so may want to do so over the phone. Simply by calling the toll free number 1-800-772-1213 you can reach a representative who can help you fill out the application over the phone.

The phone lines are open between 8:00 am to 7:00 pm, Monday – Friday. Those with hearing impairments can access the TTY phone at 1-800-325-0778. These numbers will also allow you to make appointments at your local Social Security office to speak with a representative face to face.

Applying in Person

There are still many applicants who feel it is better to visit an office in person to make their application. It is advised that if you wish to do this you should make an appointment as this can save you lengthy wait times.

Appointments may be backlogged and it may take weeks until you get one so if this is a time sensitive situation walk-ins may be ok or perhaps the phone option may be a good compromise.

You will need to bring along your completed form and all of the relevant documentation to prove your eligibility for disability benefits.

What Information and Documents Do You Need to Make an Application?

You will be asked for various types of information from personal details, employment information and medical records. We will break this up into sections below to give you an idea of what may be needed.

Personal & Family

  • Original or certified copy of your birth certificate
  • If born outside of the U.S. either a certificate of citizenship or permanent resident card
  • Marriage certificate/ license if applicable
  • Divorce decrees for any marriages lasting over 10 years
  • Social Security card
  • Banking details (for direct deposit purposes)

Education/Work History/Military History

  • Information regarding completed education, such as locations, qualifications earned and graduation years
  • Information from any vocational schools attended
  • W-2 forms and/or self employment tax returns (verifies your former income levels)
  • Employer information for the past two years
  • Date of initial onset of disability
  • Job history for prior 15 years
  • Tasks required by the job you held the longest
  • Military service details
  • Military discharge papers

Workers Compensation (If Applicable)

  • Claim award letter and number
  • Settlement agreement
  • Pay stubs
  • Proof of any workers compensation benefits received

Medical Records

These will be the most important documents as they will serve to prove your inability to hold a job and your eligibility for financial assistance.

  • Contact details for all doctors, hospitals and clinics who have treated you
  • Dates of diagnosis, treatments, appointments, surgeries and procedures related to the disability
  • Test results and laboratory findings
  • List of medications taken for your disability, how long you have been taking them and if they are effective
  • Copies of medical records, histories, treatments, clinical findings and prognosis
  • Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form completed by your primary doctor
  • Statements from non medical sources to attest to your disability. This can be from friends, family, clergy, employer, counselors etc

What Happens Once You Apply?

The first thing you will receive after applying for disability benefits will be a confirmation of receipt. This means that they are reviewing your application and will get a decision from you as soon as possible. They will determine if you meet all eligibility criteria before a decision is made.

It should be noted that many cases are initially rejected even though the person has a legitimate disability. Do not let this scare you off because these decisions are not the final word, you can always appeal.

Commonly applicants may need to get an attorney involved if the Social Security Administration is not willing to reconsider the initial denial. The attorney can take the case in front of an administrative law judge.

I will be honest here the whole process from application to getting a hearing in front of a judge can take between 12 – 24 months. Sadly the Administration is very stringent when it comes to SSDI so they do not make things easy.

Assuming things go well in court you may finally be awarded disability benefits. After 24 months of benefits you will be enrolled in Medicare coverage.


Social Security Disability Insurance benefits can help those with debilitating illnesses or injuries survive financially after they can no longer work. There are some serious hoops to jump through and the whole process from start to finish can take over two years.

Reference SSA Locator

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  • " How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits". SSA Locator. Accessed on May 26, 2024.

  • " How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits". SSA Locator, Accessed 26 May, 2024

  • How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits. SSA Locator. Retrieved from