If you apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, one of the main forms you'll need to fill out is the Application for Disability Insurance Benefits, Form SSA-16-BK. If you apply online, you'll just answer questions in an online interview and Social Security will fill out the form for you. If you're applying for SSI (Supplemental Security Income), you'll fill out Form SSA-8000-BK instead. (Learn more about where to file for Social Security disability.)
What's on the Disability Application?
Form SSA-16-BK consists of 33 questions. Many of them are routine, like your address, the names of your past employers, the names of your spouse and children, and information that will let the Social Security Administration (SSA) determine whether there are other federal benefits that you might be entitled to. Here's a sample of a filled-out SSDI application.
There are two questions in particular that you should take some extra care in answering.
Onset Date of Disability
Question 10 says “Enter the date you became unable to work because of your illness, injuries, or conditions.” This date is called your alleged onset date, the date that you claim your disability began. The onset date is important and will affect how much backpay (retroactive benefits) you will receive if you claim is approved. The earlier your onset date, the more backpay you'll get. (For more information, see our articles about disability back payments.)
If your disability began with a specific incident like a car accident, then this may be an easy question for you to answer. However, if your disability is caused by one or more illnesses that have worsened gradually over time, then the question will probably be difficult. Most people have never tried to remember the date they became disabled. The date of disability is usually considered to be when your medical condition started to make you unable to do your job effectively.
If you have never thought about when you became disabled, sit down with a calendar or talk with friends or family to jog your memory about the history of your disability. For example, it may be that you were diagnosed with fibromyalgia in October 2009 while you were still employed, but the illness worsened over time and resulted in some poor job performance. Friends and family may be able to help you remember when the illness impaired your ability to work, and that would be your onset date.
Another source of information that can help you establish your onset date is treatment providers (the doctors and hospitals you've visited). If you became disabled while you were seeing a medical provider, requesting and reviewing those medical records may help you pinpoint your onset date.
Details of Your Disability
Question 24 asks “What are the illnesses, injuries, or conditions that limit your ability to work? (Give a brief description.)”
Don’t exaggerate your conditions, but do be thorough. Make your answers are detailed enough to describe all of your illnesses or conditions and how each affects your ability to work. For example, an applicant who writes, “I can’t work because of my bad back,” is going to have less likelihood of success than one who writes, “I have degenerative disc disease, and it has gotten so severe that I can’t walk well anymore. I have trouble standing more than 30 minutes at a time and have great difficulty walking up stairs.”
In other words, it's important to include not just your diagnosis, but what functional limitations your medical condition causes. (Note that getting disability for back problems is difficult, and even someone with a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease is not likely to get benefits unless they have particular types of medical proof and severe functional limitations. See our article on DDD for more information.)
It's important that you list all of the conditions that limit your ability to work, not just those that you think are the most serious. The conditions that you think are not serious enough to list on the application may be the conditions that reduce your residual functional capacity to the point that you qualify for disability. (If you have more than one medical condition, you may want to read our article on the combined effects of multiple disabilities.)
Remember to list all mental conditions as well. People tend to minimize their conditions, especially mental conditions, but those can be the conditions that result in Social Security approving your claim. If you have been diagnosed with depression or another mental disorder, you should certainly list it as a condition in your answer to question 24. (For more information on why this is important, see our article on the impact of moderate depression or anxiety on a disability claim.)
If you run out of space in the few lines that Social Security gives you to answer this question, continue your answer in the “Remarks” section on page 5 of the application, or attach a separate sheet of paper with your complete answer.
Getting Help With the Application
You can get free help filling out the application from the Social Security Administration. Call 800-772-1213 to arrange an in-person visit or telephone call. You may also be able to hire a nonlawyer disability representative to help you fill out the form. (Most, but not all, disability attorneys don't get involved until you have been denied disability benefits and you want to file an appeal.)
Learn more about filing for disability.