Source: Social Security Administration.

Social Security is an important part of nearly every American's retirement planning, but for those who suffer a disability during their careers, Social Security disability benefits are even more important to help make ends meet. Unfortunately for the millions of Americans who need disability benefits, the process of applying for and receiving Social Security disability is often a long one.

If you need disability benefits, you probably can't afford to wait too long. But few people know what they can do to try to streamline the process. While there are no guarantees that you can avoid all the delays involved, a few simple tips can improve your odds of a quicker decision on your disability claim.

Why Social Security is fraught with delays

The biggest problem with Social Security disability is that there are so many people making claims for benefits. Last year, about 3 million people applied for disability, and the Social Security Administration ended up denying about two-thirds of those claims.

With that amount of traffic moving through the system, even getting an initial decision takes longer than you'd think. Actually making your initial claim is relatively easy, with online application options available to handle your needs once you've gathered all the necessary information on your end. Entering that information to provide it to the SSA can take just an hour or so. You can also set up an appointment with a live person at a Social Security branch office or arrange a call for a representative to take your information over the phone.

Given how quickly you can apply for Social Security disability, it's a shock to learn that just getting an initial approval or rejection from the SSA typically takes between three and six months, unless you can qualify to receive an expedited review due to what's known as a compassionate allowance. If your award is approved, then you'll get pay dating back to the date on which the SSA says you were disabled, less the required five-month waiting period and subject to a maximum 12-month retroactive period prior to the time of your application. And remember: that's a best-case scenario that assumes your initial claim is approved.

The even longer process of appealing a denied Social Security disability claim

Things get even worse if your initial disability claim is denied. A multi-step appeals process is available to those whose have their applications rejected, and many people have initial denials reversed.

But huge backlogs plague the system of administrative law judges and other appellate venues. With nearly a million people waiting for hearings, it can take more than a year just to have your case heard. What that means is that you have to be prepared not to receive benefits for years, only later to get a lump sum that will make you whole for all the years during which you didn't get any payments.

Source: Social Security Administration.

How to minimize your wait for Social Security disability

If you want to shorten your waiting time for Social Security disability benefits, your best bet is to make your initial claim as straightforward and simple as possible. Make sure you have all the paperwork you'll need available and in good order so that the administrator overseeing your case doesn't have to do any extra work to evaluate your claim. Get documentation for your medical condition and its impact on your ability to do not only the job you've worked in most recently but also other types of employment for which you'd be qualified. Remember that you'll only receive Social Security disability if you're unable to work and you can't adjust to other types of work -- you're not entitled to partial benefits for short-term or partial disability.

Meanwhile, if your disability claim is complicated, it makes sense to get professional help right away. If you don't, then simple common mistakes can lead to those year-long delays even before you get a true evaluation of the merits of your case. Add in even more years of delays further in the process, and it's easy to understand why so many disability cases are closed not by awarding benefits but because the initial claimant dies before the claim is resolved.

The Social Security disability process takes longer than it should, and many of those suffering from disabilities can't afford the delay involved. But even though you can't eliminate waiting periods, taking simple steps to make your claim easier to handle should pay off in the long run.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.