Frequently Asked Questions about Social Security Disability

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Answers a range of questions about the Social Security Disability application process, eligibility, what medical records are needed, and which conditions can be Fast Tracked.

What is a “disability,” as defined by the Social Security Administration?
It’s a physical or mental condition – one that’s expected to last at least 12 months or result in death – that prevents a person from working at a level that is considered substantial gainful activity. The disability does not have to be work-related but benefits are not paid for short-term disabilities that last for less than twelve months (though the twelve-month period can be interrupted by unsuccessful work attempts) or disabilities that disabled a person only from working in a past occupation.

Is a letter from my doctor, stating that I’m disabled, good enough for the SSA?
Not by itself. You’ll still need to complete an application (claim) for SSDI benefits and also provide the SSA with personal data, medical records and other medical evidence that supports your doctor’s opinion. You may also be asked to go for a physical or psychological exam paid for by the SSA.

What information about my medical condition and my work experience do I send to the SSA?
You will complete extensive questionnaires about your medical condition and your work history. You’ll also need medical records from the doctors, hospitals, clinics, caseworkers, therapists, etc., involved in diagnosing or treating your disability.

How does my work history affect my qualifications to receive SSDI benefits?
You’ll need to have worked long enough and recently enough under Social Security (i.e., you’ve paid into the system) to earn the required number – it changes annually – of work credits. If you haven’t met these requirements, you’re not eligible for SSDI benefits. But you may be eligible for other types of benefits. Your work history and the transferable skills you gained from that work are considered in determining whether you can go back to previous work in an occupation that is new to you.

How long does it usually take the SSA to process a typical application for SSDI?
It usually takes from three to five months to process an application, or longer if any required data is incomplete or missing. If your application is denied, it will take additional months if you appeal the decision. Then, if your appeal is denied and you ask for a hearing, you can figure there will be an additional wait time of about 442 days!

I heard there’s a “Fast Track” that speeds up the process if someone has a serious medical condition that’s listed?
Yes. Another 25 medical conditions were recently added to the list of 200 – compiled in 2008 and 2012 – that clearly qualifies applicants for Compassionate Allowances. Applications for persons with any of these 225 conditions can usually get approved in just days – if they meet the other, non-medical requirements for SSDI benefits.

What’s involved when the SSA reviews my application for benefits?
A five-step process is used to make a determination as to whether or not you qualify for SSDI benefits. First, your application is studied to determine if you’ve provided all the information required and you have enough work credits to qualify. If so, it’s sent to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office in your state. Their disability specialists ask your doctor(s) about your condition and how it limits your ability to do work-related activities.

If my application is denied do I get a second chance to apply?
For one reason or another, about 70% of all SSDI applications are denied the first time they go through the system. If yours is denied, you can appeal the denial, provided any missing information and explaining why the decision to deny was incorrect.

What if I resolve whatever it is that caused them to turn me down, I apply again, and they turn me down again?
If you contest the decision within 60 days, you can request a hearing before a federal administrative law judge. If an SSDI-qualified attorney has not helped you up to that point, you may want to hire one to represent you in court. It’s really not a do-it-yourself procedure. You will owe attorney fees only if you are approved for benefits and the fees will be withheld and paid to the attorney from your back pay.

Can disabled children get government benefits?
Disabled children under age eighteen may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits if their income and their family’s income is within the SSI limits. Adult children who are unmarried and become disabled before age twenty-two may qualify for Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB) paid to disabled adult children of a parent who is either deceased or receiving Social Security Disability (SSDI) or Retirement benefits.

If my application is approved, when will benefits start?
It depends on the SSA’s determination as to when your disability began and on when you filed your claim. Your first benefit will cover the sixth full-calendar month after that date. For instance, if your disability officially began on July 15, 2019, your first benefit would be paid for the month of January, 2020, and you’d receive it in February, 2020. Payments are sent in the month that follows the month they’re for.

How long can I continue to get benefits for a particular disability?
If your case is typical, you’ll continue to receive benefits until your disability lessens (if that’s possible) and you’re able to resume work on a regular basis.

When I reach “retirement age,” can I still receive SSDI benefits?
If you’re still receiving SSDI benefits when you reach full retirement age, which ranges from age 66 to 67 depending on your year of birth, your benefits will be automatically converted to SSA retirement benefits, usually of the same dollar amount.

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