Social Security Disability Explained

The SSA offers two types of benefits for disabled workers, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). While SSDI is funded by Social Security deductions from paychecks and serves individuals who have paid into the system, SSI is for low-income people, the blind, and children.

If you have a medical condition that prevents you from working a full-time job, whether it is physical or mental in nature, you may be able to claim disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Understanding the eligibility requirements, application procedures, and appeals process can be confusing, especially for individuals sidelined by a disability.

The following article provides information about Social Security disability, explained in a general manner with links to more in-depth resources. See "Social Security Disability" for FindLaw's complete coverage of this topic.

Social Security Disability Basics

 To compare and contrast the two programs, and learn about the eligibility requirements for each, see "What is the Difference Between SSDI and SSI?"

To be considered "disabled" for the purposes of claiming SSDI or SSI benefits, you must have a condition that prevents you from earning a certain monthly income as a full-time worker. Also, the disability must have lasted (or is expected to last) for 12 continuous months, or is expected to result in death. See "Definition of 'Disabled' for SSI & SSDI Claims" for more details.

The SSA maintains an official listing of medical impairments, commonly referred to as the "blue book," of approved medical conditions. This list includes chronic coronary disease; mental disorders such as autism, anxiety, and depression; hearing or vision loss; and Parkinson's disease. But you may still be eligible even if your condition is not listed in the blue book, since each case is considered on an individual basis. See "Medical Conditions that Qualify You for Disability Claims" for details.

Applying for Disability Benefits

Claims for disability benefits can be done online, in person, or over the telephone. The process goes much more smoothly if you have prepared the necessary documents and information in advance, including income tax statements, the names of prescription medications, and the dates of all medical procedures and therapy sessions. See "How to File for Social Security Disability" for an in-depth guide to the SSDI/SSI application process, including links to the necessary forms.

One of the key factors to your claim is the disability onset date, which is the date on which you first became too disabled to work full-time. This is determined by records of your work history, allegations made by you in your application, medical evidence, and (in some cases) interviews with family and friends. See "What is My Disability Onset Date?" to learn more.

Don't get too discouraged if your initial claim is denied. Most claims are at first, for any number of reasons, even if they eventually are approved at appeal. See "Why a Disability Claim Gets Denied" for more information.

Appealing a Denied Disability Claim

You have four opportunities to appeal a denied claim, beginning with a very basic reconsideration of your initial claim by another SSA representative and ending with a claim in federal court:

  1. Reconsideration
  2. Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
  3. Review by the SSA Appeals Council
  4. Claim in federal court

About one-third of all initial claims and reconsiderations result in an approval, but the majority of hearings end favorably for the claimant. See "Basics of Social Security Disability Appeals" for an overview.

Claimants wishing to appeal must file their request within 60 days of receiving their notice from the SSA. While hearings are generally informal and take only about an hour to complete, your chances of success improve dramatically if you prepare in advance (see "Preparing for Your Social Security Disability Hearing" for advice).

Let an Attorney Guide You Through the SSDI Claims Process

Dealing with the Social Security Administration can be enormously stressful. Frustration and confusion can result in the loss of a significant amount of time and may jeopardize your ability to collect benefits. Don't let the complexity of the rules or uncertainty about your rights prevent you from pursuing your claim. An experienced SSDI attorney can help you better understand your rights and determine what course of action is most appropriate given your situation.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • The initial Social Security process doesn’t require an attorney
  • An attorney primarily handles claims that are denied
  • It can be helpful to have an attorney during Social Security benefit disputes or appeals

A Social Security lawyer can help protect your rights to your benefits.

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