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How Do I Apply for Disability?

You’ll need to document your condition — and possibly wait a long time to hear back

Decisions takes place through a network of local SSA field offices and Disability Determination Services, state agencies that are funded by the federal government and operated under guidance from the Social Security Administration. Your application will generally be looked at by a team that includes a medical or psychological consultant and a disability specialist. They’ll use an intensive five-step sequential process to investigate and analyze your education, job history, work experience and age-related physical abilities — past and present.  See “How We Decide If You Are Disabled.”

While some applicants are approved quickly because of dire and easily verifiable medical conditions, most people wait an average of 104 days for a decision on their initial claim for benefits. If you’re turned down, as often happens, you can file a request for reconsideration within 60 days of the date you receive the rejection letter.

If you’re turned down again, you have another 60 days to request a hearing before an administrative law judge. But you’ll typically have a long wait. As of January this year, according to Social Security, disability applicants were waiting an average of 343 days—almost a year—for hearings on their cases.

Disability benefits will continue for as long as you remain disabled. And when you reach full retirement age, the benefits are converted to retirement benefits with no change in the amount of money.

For more information, see “What You Need to Know When You Get Social Security Disability Benefits.”

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question for the Social Security Mailbox? Check out the archive. If you don't find your answer there, send a query.

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