Tips On Filing For Social Security Disability Benefits

About a month ago, I answered some questions from people who were wondering if I thought they might be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. I essentially told them that the only way they would know for sure is to actually apply for such benefits.

I took flack from some readers who thought my answer encouraged an “entitlement society” where everybody is trying to mooch some kind of financial windfall off the government. I answered those charges in a previous column.

But I got many more comments and questions from readers asking for my help in applying for Social Security disability. In a moment, I’ll offer some tips for people who plan to sign up for benefits. But first, I need to provide some general information about the disability program.

Disability benefits were added to the Social Security program in 1956. A separate funding structure was established to pay for the program. A small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax (currently 0.9 percent) is earmarked to fund the disability program. Those monies are collected and disbursed from a trust fund (the Disability Insurance Trust Fund) that is managed separately from the retirement fund (formally known as the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund).

Many people mistakenly confuse Social Security disability with the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability program. They are totally different government programs. SSI is welfare benefit payable to people with low income and assets. It’s funded by general income tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. Both programs just happen to be run by the same agency: the Social Security Administration. It doesn’t help that SSA refers to one as SSDI (Social Security disability insurance) and to the other as SSID (Supplemental Security Income disability).

The law defines “disability” this way: It says that in order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must have an impairment that is so severe that it’s expected to keep you from doing any kind of work for at least 12 months. Or the condition must be so bad that it is considered terminal.

Throughout the insurance and pension industry, that is known as a very strict definition of disability. Despite all the rumors that exist about deadbeats and fakers on the disability dole, the opposite is more often the case: There are lots of people who would be considered disabled and eligible for many other government and private disability plans who do not qualify for Social Security disability payments.

Eligibility is also restricted because of the work and tax-paying requirement. As a general rule, a person must have worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to qualify for Social Security disability. And some of that work must have been recent. The law specifically states that you must have worked and paid taxes in five of the last 10 years. (Those work and tax-paying rules are less stringent for younger workers who become disabled.)

So if you have an impairment that keeps you from working and if you meet those basic requirements for disability benefits, here are some tips that will help you when you want to file a claim.

Tip 1: You can begin the filing process online at the Social Security Administration website: Just click on “Apply online for disability benefits” right on the home page. You can also call the SSA at 800-772-1213 and make an appointment to file in person at a Social Security office. You have the option of filing your claim over the phone.

Tip 2: One of the first questions on the disability application form essentially asks this: “What is wrong with you, and how does this impairment prevent you from working?” Answer this question as thoroughly as possible. The inability to work (not just the impairment itself) is the key to qualifying for benefits. You should describe in as much detail as possible how your impairment (or impairments — see Tip 3) impact your ability to do your job.

Tip 3: List all physical and mental problems you have, no matter how insignificant they seem. Don’t simply write down the condition that you consider your primary disability. It’s frequently a combination of disabilities that qualifies someone for benefits.

Tip 4: A big section of the disability questionnaire seeks information about your medical sources. Thoroughly list the names, addresses and phone numbers of all of the hospitals, clinics, doctors and other professionals who have treated you. The government needs medical records to determine whether your condition is severe enough to qualify you for benefits. And, of course, those records will come from the people you list on the application form. I can tell you from experience that nothing slows up a disability claim more than the inability to get records from medical sources.

Tip 5: The Social Security Administration actually contracts with a state agency — known as Disability Determination Services in most states — to make disability decisions. Shortly after you file, your claim will be sent to your state DDS. Call SSA and get the DDS phone number. Then, call DDS to find out the name of the analyst who has been assigned to your case. Make that person your new best friend!

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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