Social Security benefits can be literally lifesaving for Americans who have disabilities that leave them unable to work. Unfortunately, applying for these benefits can be a long and complicated process. It can take up to five months for your application to be reviewed, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be approved. This is why it’s crucial to get your application right the first time.
The Social Security Administration follows strict guidelines when determining who is eligible for these benefits.
A person is disabled under the Social Security Act if he or she can’t work due to a severe medical condition that has lasted, or is expected to last, at least one year or result in death. The person’s medical condition must prevent him or her from doing work that he or she did in the past, and it must prevent the person from adjusting to other work.
What You’ll Need
There’s no point in applying for these benefits if you don’t meet all the SSA’s criteria, so make sure you have everything before getting started. You’ll need to provide:
- Proof of citizenship and identity. Specifically, you’ll be asked for your Social Security number and your U.S. birth certificate or other proof that you’re a U.S. citizen. If you’re married or have previously been married, the SSA will also ask for information about your spouse and the dates of your marriage.
- Medical evidence. The SSA will request proof that you’re unable to work, which may include copies of your medical records, doctors’ letters, test results and medication information. You will also be asked to provide details about your abilities to perform certain basic tasks that are necessary to work, like walking and remembering instructions, as well as contact information for your doctors.
- Proof of work history. Social Security provides disability benefits only to people who have previously worked and paid into the SS system. You will have to prove that you worked for a certain period of time, the length of which is determined by your age when you become disabled. (For instance, if you’re disabled before age 28, you’ll need to have worked for at least 1.5 years; at age 30, you’ll need to have worked for 2 years, and so on.)
- Financial and work records. The SSA will ask you to see your recent tax returns as proof of how much money you’ve recently earned, as well as dates and contact numbers related to all your recent jobs and records of any claims you filed for work-related benefits, such as Workers’ Compensation.
- Military records, if applicable.
- Bank account information, if you want to receive benefits through direct deposit.
How to Apply
Gathering all of the required documentation tends to be the most challenging and time-consuming part of this process. Once you have everything together, you may apply for disability benefits online through the SSA’s website or by calling them at 1-800-772-1213. If you prefer to apply in person, you can visit your local Social Security office.
Note that if you choose to apply online or over the phone, you’ll still need to either mail or take your supporting documents to the SSA. You may submit photocopies of many documents, but you must submit the original version of your birth certificate or other citizenship documents. You shouldn’t risk these items getting lost, so you may want to take them to your local SSA office yourself.
Because this application process is daunting and because applicants are rejected for making mistakes, many lawyers and facilitators offer their services to help people apply for disability benefits. Be wary of facilitators who ask for large sums of money upfront and ask for references from previous clients.
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