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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

En español | Q.  I’m 63 and unable to work because of a recent accident. How do I apply for Social Security disability benefits? And how long will it take to get them?

A. Social Security provides a financial safety net for workers who reach retirement and old age, families who lose their breadwinners — and workers who can’t work anymore. The Social Security Disability Insurance program pays over $9 billion a month to 8.5 million disabled workers, for an average monthly benefit of $1,110. This is a program that may help you, too. But it may not be easy to qualify.

Sign up for the AARP Money Newsletter.

Applicants must prove to Social Security — on the basis of medical evidence and other factors — that they are, indeed, disabled. Under Social Security rules, that means that “your illnesses, injuries or conditions are severe and prevent you from not only doing the type of work you did in the past but also from adjusting to other jobs which exist in substantial numbers in the national economy.” And your condition must be expected to last for at least a continuous period of 12 months or end in death.

You can apply at a Social Security office, or online at www.socialsecurity.gov. Click on the button that says “Disability” and you’ll be taken to a series of questionnaires that you can fill out electronically. You’ll be asked to provide detailed medical reports that support your claim. There are many lawyers who can help you with your application. But you are, of course, free to handle everything yourself.

You must have worked and paid Social Security taxes long enough to qualify for disability, particularly in the years immediately before your disability began — the length of time depends on your age. See “Minimum Age to Receive Disability Benefits.” Any disability benefits will be based on how much you made during your working years.

 All claims begin with a five-month waiting period — no disability benefits can be paid for these months, even if your application is approved before five months have passed.  

Next: The application process. »

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