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Social Security Disability

Social Security Disability
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If you have a disease or disability that prevents you from working, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, if you have worked long enough and paid enough into Social Security. Under the law, workers can begin receiving disability benefits once they have been out of work for at least five months. However, benefits don't kick in unless the disability is expected to last at least a year or result in death. Spouses and children of disabled workers may also receive benefits. Generally, payments will continue until the worker's medical condition improves enough that he or she can return to work.


  • In order to receive benefits, employees must have worked at least five years (though the requirement may be less for younger workers) within the last 10 years before becoming disabled.
  • Social Security Disability applies only to long-term medical conditions, lasting at least a year, that prevent a person from performing "gainful" work - whether that's the employee's previous job or another job.

Disability Payments

How much you will receive in Social Security disability benefits depends on how much you earned during your working life. The Social Security Administration calculates your monthly disability benefits based on your average earnings before you became disabled. For an estimate of how much you will receive in disability benefits, visit the Social Security Administration online at and input information about your earnings history.

A disabled person can receive benefits until age 65, at which time payments are converted into retirement benefits. The amount of your monthly checks will not change at this time.

Family members, including spouses, children under 18 and disabled children, may be eligible for a monthly benefit of up to 50 percent of your disability rate. However, there is a limit to the total amount of money that can be paid to a family, and that amount varies between 150 percent and 180 percent of your disability benefits.

Applying for Benefits

If you become totally disabled you will need to apply with the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. It's a good idea to apply early because it can take years to begin collecting disability payments because the system is so backlogged.

There are three ways that you may apply for Social Security disability benefits:

In order to apply for benefits, you'll need:

  • Your Social Security number and proof of your age
  • Names, addresses and phone numbers of doctors, caseworkers, hospitals, and clinics that took care of you and the dates of your visits
  • Names and dosages of all the medications you are taking
  • Medical records from your doctors, therapists, hospitals, clinics and caseworkers, that you already have in your possession
  • Laboratory and test results
  • A summary of where you worked and the kind of work you did
  • Your most recent W-2 form or, if you were self-employed, a copy of your federal tax return.

If family members are also applying for benefits, have this information available, as well:

  • Social Security numbers and proof of age for each person applying for benefits
  • Proof of marriage, if your spouse is applying for benefits, as well as dates of prior marriages if applicable.

You will be asked to complete an Application for Benefits, as well as an Adult Disability Form. Both can be completed online at

You may find it helpful to request an Adult Disability Starter Kit from the Social Security Administration. These are available online at

You don't need an attorney to file for Social Security Disability benefits, but you may find it helpful to have an advocate who understands how the system works and who can cut through all the red-tape and bureaucracy.

While you may have a clear-cut case of disability, it may be more difficult than you think to start collecting Social Security Disability Benefits. Because of the number of applications every year and the inefficiency of the system, there's currently about a two-year backlog. This backlog has been well documented in the media by news outlets including USA Today and the New York Times.

After filing an application for Social Security Disability benefits, you'll wait approximately three to six months to find out if your application has been approved or denied. For most applicants, the initial answer is no. In fact, of the 2.5 million people who file disability claims every year, nearly two-thirds are denied benefits initially.

After an initial claim is denied, you have 60 days to appeal the decision. If you miss this deadline, you must start over and file a new application for benefits, further delaying your payments.

The first appeal is called reconsideration, and an employee of the Social Security Administration reviews your application. The reconsideration phase normally takes six to nine months. Denials are pretty common at this level as well, so most people have to make a second appeal and request a hearing with an administrative law judge.

Again, you have only 60 days to file an appeal for a hearing, and it may be a year or more before you are assigned a hearing date. According to the New York Times, most applicants wait 500 days for a hearing, twice as long as in 2000, when the wait was 258 days. Since 2000, the backlog of Social Security disability cases awaiting hearing has soared from 311,000 to 755,000

At the hearing, you (and your attorney, if you hire one) will be able to present evidence about your medical condition, work history and disability to a judge. The judge who presides over your case will decide whether to grant you Social Security benefits. For most people, the process ends here.

Several factors can work in your favor during the hearing:

  • Medical Records and Opinion - Good medical records and a statement from your doctor explaining why you cannot work. Even if there's no cure for your disability, it's a good idea to continue seeing a doctor so that there's an ongoing record of your symptoms and your medical condition.
  • Witnesses - Testimony from family, friends and others who have to assist you with everyday activities and chores
  • If the administrative law judge denies your claim at hearing, you have 60 days to file for an appeal with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. From there, people who have been denied benefits may file a lawsuit in federal district court.

Paying Your Attorney

If you choose to hire an attorney to help you with your Social Security Disability claim, you won't have to pay anything up front. And when you receive your disability payments, you won't owe big legal bills.

Attorneys who represent disabled workers are only allowed to collect a fee that is equal to 25 percent of the disabled person's past-due benefits. The maximum attorney fee in Social Security cases is $5,300.

Social Security Backlog

As you already know, it may be years before you start receiving monthly Social Security payments for a legitimate disability that limits your ability to work. Simply put, the Social Security Administration is overloaded, and disabled workers are suffering because of that.

  • Two-thirds of people who apply for social security disability are initially denied benefits
  • Some 755,000 people are caught up in the backlog, as they await hearings on their Social Security disability applications.
  • Applicants must wait an average of 500 days for an appeals hearing

The Social Security Administration is taking steps to reduce the backlog, but politics could get in the way. The agency plans to hire at least 150 new appeals judges, but doing so would require more money than is currently in the agency's budget.



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