How can I apply for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Disability is a frightening world to navigate. Losing the ability to work is humiliating, and finding the resources to start collecting disability income is an exhausting, confusing process. The Social Security Administration has extremely strict definitions of disability, and out of the millions of people who apply every year, only a third are initially approved, with even fewer actually getting benefits.

But if you do qualify for disability benefits, the payouts are substantial. Monthly disability payments average $1,234. Though this is barely enough to stay above the poverty level, the payments are extremely helpful for someone who has lost the ability to work, and provides enough income for basic expenditures and needs.

How do you apply for disability while maximizing your chances of getting approved? Knowing the common reasons for denial and building a good case for yourself greatly increase your odds at being approved. Before you start, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with SSDI.

To qualify for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), an applicant must:

  • Prove she/he is disabled or cannot work in gainful employment
  • Earn enough work credits

How does SSA determine if I'm disabled?

If you are working in 2020 and your average monthly earnings exceed $1,260 a month, you're generally not considered disabled. However, if you're not working due to a disability, the Disability Determination Service (DDS) will determine your disability based on 4 steps:

  • Is your condition severe enough to limit you from doing basic work?
  • Is your condition in the SSA list of medical conditions? If it isn't, the DDS will decide if it is as severe as other conditions on the list.
  • Does your condition prevent you from doing work you've done in the past?
  • Is there other other work you could do? If not, the DDS will consider you disabled.

There are special situations for the blind, widowed, disabled children, and wounded warriors and veterans.

What are work credits?

SSDI benefits are meant to replace a portion of your annual salary you've lost due to your condition. The more you earned, the more you'll get from SSDI (to a limit). Disability income requires you worked long enough and paid enough into Social Security taxes, and your eligibility is measured in “credits.” To qualify for disability, you generally need 40 credits, 20 being earned in the past 10 years ending on the year you became disabled. But younger workers may qualify with fewer work credits

The amount of work needed for one credit changes every year. In 2020, you'll earn one credit for every $1,410 you earn. You can earn up to four credits every year, which means for 2020 if you earned $5,640, you'll have gained as many credits as you can.

If the SSA determines you have a disability and enough work credits, there's a good chance you'll be initially approved. But first, you have to apply.

How to apply for SSDI

There's no sugarcoating it: Applying for disability is a nightmare. It's tedious, long, and requires a lot of supporting information. It's important to file for disability as soon as you become disabled. Before you start, we recommend getting all of your supporting documents together before applying, including:

  1. Date and place of birth and social security number
  2. Marriage and divorce information, including SSN of spouse or ex spouse and birth dates
  3. Names and birthdays of children and their situations
  4. Military service
  5. Employment details for current and past years:
    1. Money you earned last year and this year
    2. Name and address of your employer(s) for this year and last year
    3. List of jobs you had in the 15 years before you became unable to work, and the dates you were employed at those jobs
    4. Information on workers compensation or any other benefits you've filed for
  6. Self-employment details
  7. Bank deposit information
  8. Alternate contacts
  9. List of medical conditions
  10. Name, address, and contact information of a person who knows about your medical condition and can help you apply
  11. Information about other medical records:
    1. Names, addresses, phone numbers, patient ID numbers, dates of treatment(s)
    2. Medicines you are taking and who prescribed them
    3. Names and dates of medical tests you've had and who appointed them
  12. Employment history
  13. Education and training

You'll need the following documents while applying:

  1. Birth certificate
  2. Proof of citizenship or lawful alien status
  3. Military discharge papers
  4. W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns from last year
  5. Any medical evidence such as medical records, reports, and test results
  6. Award letters, pay stubs, settlement agreements, and other proof of past benefits you've received

You can also provide additional information that will help increase your chances of being approved. These include:

  1. Description of mental and physical requirements of your job
  2. How your condition keeps you from working
  3. A written report detailing your case

Once you have your documents and information in order, you may begin the application process by visiting the SSA Apply for Benefits page. You can also apply in person by finding a local field office, or call 1-800-772-1213 to apply by phone. Once you apply, SSA will review your application and contact you if they need more information. Be sure to check your mailbox and email regularly so you don't miss important messages. You can check the status of your application by logging into your My Social Security account. You can also call 1-800-772-1213 to check your application status.

The process is long and can be discouraging, but don't give up! Being well prepared and having all of your supporting documents together before starting will make a strong case. Being well prepared can mean the difference between a denial letter and you getting the benefits you deserve.

Other points of SSDI

SSDI benefits are adjusted for inflation, so the value of the benefit is maintained long term. Eligible family members may also receive benefits, up to 50 percent of your monthly payment. Plus, after two years of SSDI benefits, you'll become eligible for Medicare.

Can I lose my disability benefits?

As long as you're disabled, you'll received benefits. However, if your health improves so you're no longer disabled or you start earning $1,260 or more per month, you'll stop receiving benefits. The SSA determines whether you're still disabled in three ways:

  1. Expected to improve
  2. Could improve
  3. Not expected to improve

If your condition is expected to improve, the SSA will review your case six to 18 months after you start receiving benefits. If you're not expected to improve, your case will be reviewed after seven or more years. You'll be notified by mail if the SSA wants to review your case.

You can still work while receiving SSDI benefits, but you can't make more than $1,260 per month, after which the SSA will consider you no longer disabled.

If you choose to go back to work, you'll have a nine month period during which you'll receive full SSDI benefits, regardless of how much you make. After these nine months, you can take advantage of an extended period of eligibility (EPE) which can protect your benefits for another 36 months.

If you receive benefits during EPE, you can't make more than $1,260 a month. If you do, you'll receive a payment for that month and the two following months. If you're still making more than $1,260 after this “grace period,” your benefits will end until your disability causes you to stop working or you begin to earn less than $1,260.

Be sure to check maximum earning limits on the SSA website, as they change every year.

What do I do if my application is denied?

If your application is denied, you can request an appeal. Appeals must be requested in writing within 60 days of your denial. Four levels of appeals exist:

  • Reconsideration
  • A hearing before an administrative law judge
  • Review by Social Security's Appeal Council
  • Review by federal courts

To learn more about appealing a decision, click here.

Applying for disability sometimes seems like more trouble than it's worth, but it's well worth the headache if you think you could qualify. By considering eligibility requirements, carefully building your case, and staying patient, you have a good chance of earning disability income to assist you in maintaining your dignity and independence.

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