What happens when someone with disabilities can't file an application for Social Security disability benefits because of a physical or mental condition? The Social Security Administration (SSA) has rules that make it possible for someone else—a spouse, for example—to file the application on behalf of the disabled person, but only in certain situations.
Social Security requires that an application for disability benefits be filed by a "proper applicant"—someone who has the right to sign a valid application. Usually, the person applying for benefits (called the "claimant") is also a proper applicant.
Sometimes, people with disabilities can't sign the necessary forms and applications. When that happens, a proper applicant can be any of the following:
So, if your spouse can't complete a Social Security disability application, you can file a claim on your spouse's behalf. Here's what you need to know about filing a Social Security disability application for your spouse.
Applicants for Social Security benefits should always sign their disability applications if they're physically and mentally able to do so. But that's not always the case, so Social Security has established rules for when you can sign a disability application for your spouse. (20 C.F.R. § 404.612(c).)
For Social Security to accept your signature on your spouse's disability application, your spouse must be unable to sign due to:
If physical limitations prevent your spouse from signing the application, you or an eligible third party can sign it instead. Some examples of qualifying physical problems include things like:
The Social Security field office might require you to sign a written statement identifying the nature of your relationship with the disability applicant. Generally, writing a letter stating that you are married to each other and live together will qualify.
You can apply for Social Security disability benefits for your spouse, including signing the application, if your spouse:
If you claim your spouse is legally incompetent, the Social Security field office requires a copy of the court order and proof of legal guardianship. A power of attorney alone doesn't allow you to file for benefits on behalf of your spouse.
For other claims of mental incapacity, a supporting opinion from a doctor is usually necessary. If a doctor agrees that your spouse can't understand the nature of the application, Social Security will send a claim notice to your spouse—a letter saying that a claim was filed on their behalf. The SSA will allow ten days for your spouse to object.
There are other limited situations when it might be okay for you to sign your spouse's disability application because your spouse is unavailable. (20 C.F.R. § 404.612(g).) For instance, your spouse might be in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. But both of the following must be true:
If you've taken steps toward applying for benefits for your spouse but haven't completed an application, Social Security can assign your spouse a "protective filing date." The impact of a protective filing date differs depending on whether you're applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
For an SSDI application, a protective filing date can effectively extend the term of your disability insurance in case it expires. You could be eligible for benefits even if your application was filed after your "date last insured." You can protect your spouse's SSDI filing date for up to six months. (20 C.F.R. § 404.630.)
To protect an SSDI filing date for your spouse, you can send a written notice to Social Security indicating your spouse's intention to file for disability within six months. You or your spouse must sign the notice. Or, you can begin an SSDI application online for your spouse (you don't have to complete it right away to get the protected filing date, but record the application number so you can get back into the application later).
It's even easier to protect an SSI filing date. You can protect an SSI filing date by notifying Social Security in writing, as with an SSDI filing date, or by inquiring about SSI benefits over the phone or in person at your local Social Security office.
Any of the following third parties are allowed to establish a protected SSI filing date for someone else, including:
You can also establish a protected filing date for your spouse's SSI claim by starting an application online.
Social Security sometimes approves benefits for SSDI and SSI applicants who can't manage their own finances. When that happens, the SSA appoints a representative payee to handle the individual's benefit payments. (20 C.F.R. § 404.2001.)
Social Security usually appoints someone who lives with and cares for the disabled person as the representative payee. So, if you live with your spouse, you'll likely be able to serve as your spouse's representative payee. But Social Security will appoint a different payee for your spouse if you have a history of:
Learn more about the responsibilities of a Social Security representative payee, including when you might need to set up a dedicated account for your spouse's benefits.
If your spouse—or parent or another close relative—dies after applying for disability benefits, you should be able to continue their open disability claim for them. Or, if your spouse or relative didn't file a claim but could have, in some circumstances, you can file a claim for them. For more information, read our article on filing or continuing a claim for a spouse or relative who has died.
Updated September 22, 2023