How to Apply for SSDI: Steps to Get It Done

A one-step-at-a-time guide to getting Social Security disability benefits.

To file for Social Security disability benefits, you'll need to provide a lot of information to Social Security. You can either do this online, in a phone interview, or at a Social Security field office (when the coronavirus pandemic is over).

Preparing to File the Application

Gathering the necessary information is key to being able to complete the interview, but if you file online, you can add information to the application as you go.

You'll need documentation about your citizenship status, data about where you've worked for the last 15 years, and information about any medical diagnoses and treatment you've received. We've broken down what you need into categories so you can work on one area at a time.

Have Your Basic Contact Information Ready

Social Security will ask for the following information, either online or over the phone:

  • name and prior names used (for example, names from any previous marriages)
  • your Social Security number and any other Social Security numbers used in the past
  • your address, email address, and phone number
  • if you are or were married for ten years or more, your spouse's name, birth date, Social Security number, and date and place of marriage
  • the date of any divorces, and
  • if you have children, the name, age, and Social Security numbers of your children.

Prepare Your Past Employment Information

Social Security will ask you where you have worked in the past 15 years and what duties you performed for each job. Social Security will ask:

  • the dates of employment for each job over the last 15 years
  • your job titles and rate of pay
  • the names and contact information for up to five employers from the last 15 years
  • the type of work you performed generally, and the duties at the longest job you had
  • any dates of military service, including the type of duty and branch
  • your income for each of the last three years, and
  • the last day you worked.

Write Down Your Medical information

Social Security will be contacting doctors and hospitals that you have visited in recent years. You will need:

  • a list of doctors, their specialties, and their phone numbers and addresses
  • a list of clinic visits and surgeries pertaining to your disabilities
  • your patient identification numbers
  • a list of all medications, what they are for, and who prescribed them
  • the names and dates of medical tests and who requested the tests, and
  • the date that your medical conditions or illnesses began to affect your ability to work, and how your conditions interfere with job duties.

Know Your Education and Training Information

Social Security will want to know:

  • the highest grade you completed and the date you completed it
  • any special education and the school that provided it, and
  • any special job training, trade school, or vocational school, and the date you completed it.

Gather Necessary Documents

The Social Security Administration (SSA) may ask you to provide documents to show you're eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). These documents may include the following:

  • if born in the U.S.: a birth certificate or other proof of birth (such as a religious record from before age 5)
  • if not born in the U.S.: proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status (such as your Permanent Resident Card number)
  • if you worked during the last 12 months: W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns (Schedule C and SE)
  • if you in the U.S. military prior to 1968: your military discharge papers
  • if you receive veterans, workers comp, or similar government benefits: copies of award letters or settlement agreements, and
  • a copy of your most recent Social Security earnings statement (available at ssa.gov/myaccount/). The SSA will ask if you agree with the annual income on your statement.

Applying for Benefits

If you are relatively comfortable with email and computers, you'll probably find it most convenient to go to www.ssa.gov/disabilityonline to start your application. You can start as soon as you have your basic contact information ready (see above). You don't have to finish the application in one sitting; you can save your work and come back later. But, you must keep track of the application number that's given to you as soon as you start the application process, so you can re-access your application. (If you lose it, you'll have to start over.)

Assuming you've stopped working, it actually makes sense to start the application now, even if you haven't gathered all of the information listed above, since the date you start the online application counts as your filing date. The earlier your filing date, the better, since it affects the amount of disability backpay you'll receive, and can help ensure that you'll qualify for SSDI before your eligibility runs out.

You have six months to complete the online application, but the sooner you apply, the sooner you could get approved for benefits. If you get stuck, visit our step-by-step guidance for the online application. After you submit the application, an SSA claims representative will contact you if any issues on your disability application need clarifying.

Getting a Decision on Your Initial Application

Your SSA claims representative will send your application to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) agency in your state. A claims examiner at DDS, with the help of a DDS doctor, will review your application, request your medical records from your doctors (and any hospitals you visited), and will make a decision on your claim. This process usually takes three to four months, but it can take longer if the SSA is unable to contact you or your doctors. In a survey we did of our readers, over a third received an initial decision in three months or less.

If Social Security Denies Your Application

Social Security will send you a decision by mail, including the reason your claim was denied. About 65% of initial claimants are denied and have to request a reconsideration of their claim (the first stage of appeal). You have 60 days to request a reconsideration.

You can file your request for reconsideration online. A different claims examiner at DDS will reconsider your file and make a decision. The reconsideration takes about three to four months.

Almost everyone is denied at the reconsideration stage (87% nationally), but it's a step you still have to go through to get a hearing in front of a Social Security judge.

If Social Security Denies Your Application a Second Time

If your reconsideration is denied, you have 60 days to request the hearing. You can file your request for a hearing online. It can take anywhere from six months to 18 months to get a hearing, however, and during that time, you can't work. In a survey we did of our readers, over half had to wait longer than a year to get a hearing date.

Once you get to the hearing, you have a better chance of getting approved for benefits: about 55% of claimants are approved for benefits after the hearing. (For details, see our survey article on SSDI approval rates.)

If a Social Security Judge Denies Your Application Again

If the judge denies your claim after the hearing, you do have the option of filing an appeal with the Appeals Council, but very few claimants win at the Appeals Council level. Instead, most people who are still interested in pursuing disability benefits file a new disability claim at this point.

Learn more in our article on appealing a denial of a disability claim.

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