How to Fill Out the Application for Social Security Disability Insurance: Form SSA-16

Here are some tips on how to fill out the form to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (Form SSA-16).

By , J.D. · University of Virginia School of Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you're planning to apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, there are a couple of ways you can submit your claim. You can:

  • apply online, or
  • fill out a paper application and submit it to Social Security.

If you file a paper application, one of the main forms you'll need to fill out is the Application for Disability Insurance Benefits, Form SSA-16. If you apply for SSDI online, you'll just answer questions in an online interview and Social Security will fill out the form for you. Either way, you'll need to know certain information to complete this form.

(Learn more about where to file for Social Security disability.)

What's on the Disability Application?

Form SSA-16 isn't a terribly long form. But the information the form requests is required to apply for Social Security disability. The form consists of 26 questions. Most of them are routine, including the following:

  • your name and Social Security number (SSN)
  • your birthdate
  • your address
  • your citizenship or immigration status
  • the names of your past employers
  • the names of your spouse and children, and
  • information that will let Social Security determine whether there are other federal benefits that you might be entitled to.

Form SSA-16 also contains:

  • a remarks section (for longer answers)
  • places for you and a couple of witnesses to sign, and
  • a section for you to provide your direct deposit information.

Here's what Form SSA-16 looks like. It's also available in Spanish (Form SSA-16-SP).

Following are some tips to help you answer certain questions on the form.

Choosing Your Onset Date: When Did You Become Disabled?

Question 9 asks when you believe your condition became severe enough to keep you from working. This date is called your alleged onset date—the date that you claim your disability began.

Your onset date is important and will affect how much backpay (retroactive disability benefits) you'll receive if your claim is approved. The earlier your onset date, the more backpay you'll get. (Learn more about getting disability back payments.)

Determining Your Disability Onset Date

If your disability began with a specific incident like a car accident, then this might be an easy question for you to answer. But if your disability is caused by one or more illnesses that have worsened gradually over time, then the question will probably be more difficult.

You might never have tried to remember the date you became disabled. By Social Security standards, your date of disability is generally considered to be when your medical condition started to make you unable to do your job effectively.

What If You Can't Remember When Your Disability Started?

If you've never thought about when you became disabled, sit down with a calendar or talk with people who know you to jog your memory about the history of your disability.

Ask friends and family. It might be that you were diagnosed with a condition like fibromyalgia while you were still employed, but the illness worsened over time and resulted in some poor job performance or caused you to begin missing a lot of work. Friends and family might be able to help you remember when the illness impaired your ability to work, and that would be your onset date.

Ask your employer. If your employer supports your disability claim, your supervisor might be able to help you pinpoint the date when your performance at work began to suffer because of your condition. HR records should show when you began using more sick time, paid time off (PTO), or earned time off (ETO).

Check your medical records. 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 might help you pinpoint your onset date.

Giving Social Security the Details of Your Disability

Previous versions of Form SSA-16 included a question asking about the illnesses, injuries, or conditions you have that limit your ability to work. That question isn't included in the current version of the SSA-16, the form that's used to apply for Social Security disability today.

Social Security now gathers information about your impairments using Form SSA-3368-BK, the adult disability report. You'll also need to complete a Function Report (Form SSA-3373), which asks you detailed questions about how your impairment affects your ability to function on the job.

If you apply for SSDI online, these reports are now part of the main online disability application. But if you file a paper application, you'll need to submit these additional forms with your application (Form SSA-16).

Both forms give you some space to explain how your condition limits your ability to work. There's only room for a paragraph or two—not really enough space to make a strong case.

But you're not limited to the space on these forms. You can also submit a disability statement using a form called a "Statement of Claimant or Other Person" (Form SSA-795). This optional form gives you plenty of additional space to explain, in your own words, why you can't work. Learn more about writing your "disability statement" using Form SSA-795.

How to Explain Your Disability to Social Security

Whether you explain your disability using a paper form or through the online application, it's important that the information you provide is accurate. Don't exaggerate your conditions, but do be thorough.

Describe Your Medical Condition in Detail

Make your sure answers are detailed enough to describe all of your illnesses or conditions. Be sure to include specifics about how each affects your ability to work. For example, don't just write, "I can't work because of my bad back." That's not enough detail.

Instead, write something like, "I have degenerative disc disease, and it's 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 Social Security disability for back problems is difficult. Learn what it takes to get disability benefits for degenerative disc disease.)

Include All Your Impairments

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. You need to include all your impairments because Social Security must consider their combined effect on your residual functional capacity. That can significantly increase your chances of qualifying for disability.

(Learn more about how multiple impairments can strengthen your disability claim.)

Be sure to list all mental conditions as well. For example, if you suffer from degenerative disc disease and depression, you'll want to explain how both conditions affect your ability to work.

And don't downplay the effects of any of your medical conditions. People tend to minimize their impairments—especially mental conditions. But those could be the conditions that result in Social Security approving your claim. (Learn more about the impact of moderate depression or anxiety on a disability claim.)

What Else Do You Need to Apply for Disability?

Whether you apply online or use Form SSA-16, you'll need to provide Social Security with certain documents to prove you're eligible to file for disability. You'll need some if not all of the following:

  • your birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • U.S. military discharge paper(s) if you had military service before 1968
  • W-2 forms(s) and/or self-employment tax returns for last year (and sometimes the year before), and
  • information about any workers' comp-type benefits you've received.

Don't delay filing your disability application because of missing documents. Social Security will help you gather anything you're missing.

Also note that you can provide photocopies of medical documents, W-2 forms, and self-employment tax returns. But you'll need to provide an original of your birth certificate and most other documents. (Originals will be returned to you.)

You won't need to gather your medical records. Social Security will do that for you. But you should share any medical documents you already have in your possession.

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 disability advocate (a nonlawyer disability representative) to help you fill out the form. (Many disability attorneys don't want to get involved until you've been denied disability benefits and you want to file an appeal.)

Learn more about filing for Social Security disability.

Updated January 9, 2022

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