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How to Apply for Disability Benefits Through Social Security

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® – Mar 27, 2016 at 5:02PM

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If you're disabled, here's what you need to know about applying for Social Security SSI or SSDI.

Image source: Ken Mayer via Flickr.

Social Security has two disability benefit programs. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is a need-based program, designed to help disabled low-income individuals with limited resources, and Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, is based on the work history of individuals who become disabled. If you feel like you may qualify for either program, here's how to apply.

How to apply for SSI
Unlike most other Social Security programs, you can't apply for SSI benefits online. Rather, you'll need to make an appointment to visit your local Social Security office, or you can apply by phone by calling 1-800-772-1213. You also have the option of going directly to a SS office without an appointment, but the Social Security Administration warns applicants that doing so may result in a long wait time.

Eligibility for SSI is based on four main factors: disability (or age), income, resources, and citizenship. So, when you apply, you'll need to have documentation of all of these things. This isn't an exhaustive list, but some of the items you may want to bring to your appointment include:

  • Social Security card
  • Birth certificate, passport, and/or driver's license
  • If you have a job, bring pay stubs
  • Documentation if you paid for any work-related items out of pocket (like a wheelchair)
  • Bank statements for all accounts
  • Deeds/appraisals for property you own (other than your primary home)
  • Life insurance policies, burial contracts, and burial plot information
  • Details of any investments you have
  • Titles/registration for vehicles you own
  • A copy of your lease (if you rent your home)
  • Names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers for other members of your household
  • Medical reports to document your disability, including details about the medications you take
  • Information about previous jobs you've worked

If you think you're eligible for SSI, the Social Security Administration encourages you to apply as soon as possible. If you need help, the SSA will assist you in completing your application and locating the necessary documentation. They'll even pay for a medical exam if you don't have sufficient documentation of your disability.

How to apply for SSDI
Unlike SSI, you can apply for SSDI online at www.socialsecurity.gov. If you'd prefer, you can also apply by phone at the same number listed in the previous section, or in person.

For the most part, the documentation you should have is the same as the SSI list, with a few notable differences. First, since your assets aren't part of the SSDI process, you don't need to bring deeds, appraisals, investment details, or anything else in the list that documents what you own.

Additionally, since SSDI is based on your work record, it could be a good idea to bring some additional details on your employment and income. Specifically, you should bring your most recent W-2, and if you're self-employed, you should bring your most recent tax return. You should also be able to provide details about where you worked, as well as the type of work you did in order to help the SSA determine whether or not you're capable of working.

The SSA encourages you to apply for SSDI benefits as soon as you become disabled. Benefits aren't paid until the sixth full month after you became disabled, and the application can take three to five months to process, so time is of the essence.

After you apply
When applying for either SSI or SSDI, the Social Security Administration will review your application and supporting documents and make a decision as to whether or not you qualify as disabled, and if you do, whether or not you're eligible for that particular benefit program. The SSA will inform you of its decision in writing, and the letter it sends will show your new benefit information, or if you are ineligible, there will be information about how to appeal if you don't agree with the decision.

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