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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.

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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.  

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? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.

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