7 things to know about applying for Social Security disability benefits


Are you in a position where you need to apply for Social Security disability benefits? Here’s what you need to know before starting the lengthy process.

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How to apply for Social Security disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines being disabled as not being able to work due to a severe medical condition that is expected to last at least one year, or to result in death.

You should begin applying for disability benefits as soon as you become disabled. That’s because there is a six-month waiting period after you’re declared disabled before your benefits kick in, according to SSA.gov.

But before you rush off to file, read this first…

1. Gather up the required documents

The documents you’ll need to get started can be broken down into three categories:

Info about you

  • Date, place of birth and Social Security number for the applicant
  • Name, Social Security number and date of birth of current and any former spouses
  • Dates and places of marriage and dates of divorce or death (if applicable)
  • Names and dates of birth of your minor children
  • Bank routing transit number and account number for direct deposit of benefits

Info about your condition

  • Names, addresses, phone numbers, patient ID numbers and dates of treatment for all doctors, hospitals and clinics
  • Names of medicines you are taking and who prescribed them
  • Names and dates of medical tests you have had and who sent you for them

Info about your livelihood

  • Amount of money you earned both last year and this year
  • Name and address of your employer(s) for this year and last year
  • A copy of your Social Security statement
  • Beginning and ending dates of any active U.S. military service you had before 1968
  • A list of the jobs (up to five) that you had in the 15 years before you became unable to work and the dates you worked at those jobs
  • Info about any workers’ compensation, black lung, and/or similar benefits you filed, or intend to file for

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2. Choose your method of application

You can apply for disability online or over the phone by calling 1-800-772-1213.

You can also make an appointment over the phone to be seen for an in-person interview at a nearby Social Security office.

Finally, you can also just show up to an office as a walk-in. Though I wouldn’t necessarily advise doing it this way, this was how my late wife and I began her application process last year when she was terminally ill with cancer.

The pros of going in person include getting all your questions answered as they pop up in your head and being able to get a projection of what your monthly disability benefit will look like if approved.

The cons include long wait times, which may be untenable depending on your level and type of disability. Based on experience, I can tell you it’s best to take a half-day at work, if possible, if you plan to go in person.

Meanwhile, the SSA publishes a Disability Starter Kit that can help you prepare to apply in person, online or over the phone.

3. Be prepared to fill out a lot of paperwork

As you can imagine, the actual application process entails filling out a plethora of paperwork.

For starters, there’s a 10-page function report — also known as Form SSA-3373-BK — that asks you to detail how your illness or disability is impacting your performance of a wide variety of daily tasks.

On this form, you’ll answer questions about daily activities, personal care, meals, house and yard work, getting around, shopping, money, hobbies and interests, social activities and more.

function report


4. Umm, make that filling out a lot of paperwork!

You’ll also have to fill out a 10-page work history report that looks back 15 years. This is also known as Form SSA-3369-B.

On this form, you’ll be asked to provide info about job duties, any supervisory roles you may have held, the heaviest weight you were required to lift when on the job and the frequency of that heavy lifting, among other things.

work history report

After you wrap up your application, you’ll get confirmation that it’s been received sent to you either electronically or in the mail.

Next, the SSA will review your application and get in touch with you if they need additional info. Once a decision is made about your application, you’ll receive a letter informing you of the outcome.

Remember, there’s that six-month waiting period after you’re declared disabled by the SSA before you’ll receive your first check.

5. Understand the compassionate allowance program

This is not widely known, but there is a fast-track to receiving disability benefits and it’s called the “compassionate allowance” program.

Basically, if your disability or condition is deemed severe enough, the SSA will speed up the application process on your behalf.

Currently, 233 conditions qualify you for a compassionate allowance. This includes conditions such as pancreatic cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and acute leukemia, among others.

Five new conditions were added to the list in August 2018. You can see the complete list of conditions here.


6. Know that this will likely be a long process

My wife and I received the following letter early this year. It explained that she had been declared disabled, but was vague about a future timeline.

social security disability letter

Unfortunately, she had already succumbed to her illness by the time this letter arrived. Which brings me to my next point…

7. Fill out this form when a beneficiary passes away before receiving benefits

For months, I couldn’t understand why my late wife had been declared disabled back in March 2017, yet the SSA never awarded her disability benefits. We had gone well beyond the six-month waiting period!

So I called the SSA’s main phone number in July 2018 and was told the case would be referred to someone at my local Social Security office for a closer look.

Supposedly, the office had a turnaround time of 30 business days and I’d hear from them before then.

I waited for a letter to come in the mail from my local office, but it never came. So after 30 business days, I called SSA once more. But again, I couldn’t make any progress.

So back to the office I went. I didn’t have an appointment (again) and so I decided to just wait in line as a walk-in. Arriving half an hour before the office opened helped me get in and out sooner than I otherwise might have if I’d gone later in the day.

What I learned during visit is that there’s a special form — Form SSA-1724-F4 — that must be filed out if the beneficiary has passed away before receiving their disability benefit. It’s literally called “Claim for amounts due in the case of a deceased beneficiary.”

I duly filled out the form and got a stamp from the Social Security agent who took SSA-1724-FA from me. That stamp is my proof in case the SSA tries to come back with a story about why they’re delaying payment.


Stamp on Social Security disability claim

So, the key takeaway for me is this: My children and I never would have gotten the money the SSA said was owed to my late wife. It probably would have gone to unclaimed funds somewhere, unbeknownst to me.

It took me filing out a secretive form that nobody told me about — before I showed up in person at the Social Security office — to button up the last financial loose end that remained after this sad episode in our lives.

If you or someone you know has a legitimate disability that prevents you from working, you’ve got to be persistent in getting the money you are owed!

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