You should apply for disability as soon as you become disabled since it takes time to process your application. One reason why the process takes so long is that Social Security does not review the applications; they contract with state governments to review and process the applications. The SSA provides the rules and does quality reviews to make sure the state governments are complying, but the work is done by the state agencies, called Disability Determination Services.
Before your application gets forwarded to the appropriate state agency, the SSA reviews your application to determine if you meet the basic requirements for disability, such as whether you have worked enough years and reviewing your current work activities. If you meet these basic requirements, then your application will be forwarded to the appropriate agency in your state for further review.
The state agency then determines if you meet the medical requirements for disability. They ask your doctors for information about your condition, when it began, what treatment you have received, how the illness or condition affects your ability to work (i.e., can you walk, sit, lift, carry, etc.). While your doctors are not asked if you are disabled, they are asked for substantial information to help the state agency determine if you are disabled. If the agency determines that more information is needed than can be provided by your doctor, they may ask you to go for another exam (paid for by Social Security). The state agency must follow specific rules and tests for determining your level of disability. If these tests are not available, they will order new tests done so they can complete their evaluation.
How does Social Security determine if you are disabled or not? The SSA uses a five step process:
- Are you working? If you are working and you earn more than the substantial gainful activity amount discussed previously ($1,000 per month), then you will generally not be considered disabled.
- How severe is your medical condition? Simple activities – such as your ability to walk, sit or remember – must be impaired for at least one year to qualify for disability.
- Is your condition listed on the List of Impairments? SSA has a list of impairments that automatically qualify you as disabled, based on the severity of the condition.
- If you meet the first three steps, the state agency then considers whether you can do the work you did before or not. If your condition prevents you from doing the work you did before the disability, the state agency will move on to the next step.
- The final question is if you can do any other type of work. Remember, the SSA definition of disability is very strict – if you can do any substantial gainful activity you will not qualify for disability, even if you can’t do your normal job. However, if you can’t do any type of work, the state agency will decide that you are disabled.
Once the state agency completes their review, the SSA will send you a letter stating whether you have been approved or not. If your Social Security application has been denied you have the right to appeal that decision.
If you are approved for disability benefits, you should be aware that there is a 5-month waiting period, so you won’t receive a check until the 6th month after your disability began. Remember that it takes a while to process your disability application so you should apply as soon as you become disabled.
If you qualify for disability, certain members of your family may also qualify for benefits based on your work/earnings history. Family members that may qualify include your spouse if he/she is age 62 or older, your spouse if he/she is taking care of your dependent children under the age of 16, your children if they are under age 18 (under age 19 if they are in school full time), and your children if they have a disability that began before they were age 22. In some cases, even a divorced spouse may qualify for benefits if you were married for more than 10 years and he/she is not currently married (must be at least age 62).
For more help on how to apply for Social Security disability benefits, go to the SSA website at www.ssa.gov.