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Application Process

Applying for Social Security disability benefits can be a difficult process. While you can apply on your own, many individuals choose to get help from a Social Security disability attorney as they go through the application process.

Application Steps

  1. Apply immediately if you have become disabled and expect to be disabled for at least one year. The best way is to file for disability benefits online. Alternatively, you can make an appointment with your local Social Security office and file a disability claim in person or via phone by calling Social Security’s toll-free telephone number 1-800-772-1213.
  2. Your application will be evaluated by a state disability agency.
  3. A decision to either award or deny benefits will be made and you will be notified in writing, by mail. It usually takes between 3 and 4 months to get a decision.
  4. If your application is denied, you can appeal. You must appeal within 60 days of the date on the denial notice.


  • After you file a claim for benefits, your application is sent to a Social Security disability examiner at the disability determination agency in your state. The disability examiner, working with a doctor, gathers your medical records and carefully considers all of your health problems, as well as your age, education, and work experience. 
  • The examiner evaluates your eligibility for benefits, including whether you are able to do your previous work or if you are able to do other types of work.
  • The disability examiner then makes the initial decision on your application. 

The Social Security Act requires the Social Security Administration to consider age in determining disability. As people get older, they become less adaptable, less able to switch to different jobs to cope with health problems. A severe foot injury which might cause a 30 year-old to switch to a job in which he or she can sit down most of the time, might disable a 60 year-old person who could not make the adjustment to a different type of work.

Some applicants have medical conditions that are so severe that their conditions obviously meet disability standards. To quickly identify and help these individuals, Social Security has a list of Compassionate Allowances, or conditions that that will qualify for benefits based on minimal evaluation and official medical records. There are also 14 categories of “listed impairments” where SSA will consider specific medical tests and limitations to make a faster disability determination, without the need to consider age, education, or work experience.  Most types of illnesses, however, can vary from minor to severe. This makes defining disability tricky, as it depends on how badly the illness or disease has affected you.

First, be honest and complete in giving information to Social Security about what is disabling you. Many claimants, for instance, fail to mention psychiatric problems to Social Security because they are embarrassed about them. Some individuals who were slow learners in school fail to mention this fact to Social Security, even though it can have a good deal to do with whether or not the Social Security disability claim is approved.

Second, be persistent in appealing, and consider getting help from an advocate. Two-thirds of claims are denied at the initial level, and many applicants are approved at higher levels of review. A knowledgeable advocate who understands the disability determination process can help.

In most cases Social Security makes the first decision within five to six months. 

For help, go to a lawyer or other person who represents Social Security disability claimants on a regular basis. If you need a referral to a lawyer who represents Social Security claimants, call the referral service of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) at 1-800-431-2804.

In most cases, attorney fees are capped at $7,200 or 25% of a claimant’s past-due benefits, whichever is less. Attorneys are only paid if the claimant wins. All fees are determined by the Social Security Administration.

Adapted from a publication from Charles T. Hall, Esq., NOSSCR Past President.

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