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Applying for disability benefits in California? You have options. And while those options are a good thing, they can sometimes feel overwhelming.
Aside from the more “permanent” disability benefits federally, California is one of five states with a state-wide temporary disability program. Which program is right for you, how much you may earn, and your chances of getting approved for benefits can depend on your work history, your condition, and your income.
In this article, we’ll break down the benefit programs available to California residents. Then, we’ll walk through the disability application process, explain what payout you can expect, and estimate when you can expect it.
1. California Disability Insurance: Californians may qualify for statewide short-term disability insurance that can last up to a year (52 weeks). To claim benefits, you must be unable to work due to a non-work-related illness, injury, or pregnancy (if your condition or injury is work-related, you’ll apply for Workers Compensation instead).
There’s also a work history component. You have to have earned $300 dollars in wages during your 12 month “base period.” Your base period will also determine the amount of benefits you'll receive. Monthly, you’ll get 60-70% of your former monthly wages. This amount is determined by your highest quarterly earnings during the “base period.”
Learn more about California short-term disability.
2. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): SSDI supports Americans who can no longer work due to a medical condition. Generally if you’ve worked for five of the last 10 years, you qualify for SSDI (more on that below). The program is run through the Social Security Administration, and the amount you receive depends largely on how much you’ve paid into Social Security on your taxes.
3. Supplemental Security Income (SSI): If you haven’t worked enough, or worked recently enough, to qualify for SSDI, you may qualify for SSI. It’s another federal program, and you use the same application to apply. SSI is only for individuals with very little income and very few assets, and generally pays out less monthly than SSDI.
4. Long-term and short-term private disability insurance: If you or your employer purchased disability insurance prior to you becoming disabled — you can file a claim with the private insurer. These pay out a percentage of your former income — but the exact amount and duration of the benefit will depend on the policy.
5. Veterans disability benefits: If you served in the military and suffered an injury that left you unable to work, or you’re retired but have a medical condition as a result of your service, you should apply for disability benefits through Veterans Affairs. For more information, visit the VA’s disability benefits website.
For much of the rest of this article, we’re going to largely focus on SSDI and SSI. Applying for California’s state disability benefits is generally pretty straightforward — and the California state website has a decent overview of it here. Many of the medical qualifications for California state disability are consistent with other disability programs — which we’ll cover in further detail below.
If you expect your disability to last more than a year, it’s in your best interest to apply for SSDI and SSI alongside the state program. That way, you aren't worried about what to do once your California disability insurance runs out.
It’s also frequently necessary to apply for SSDI and SSI when trying to qualify for other programs (like most long-term disability plans). Or, they’re advantageous to apply for in conjunction with other programs (like VA benefits).
Any medical condition that prevents you from working can qualify for disability. Generally speaking, your condition qualifies if it lasts longer than one year or could potentially lead to death.
Amongst these the most common conditions to qualify in California were:
Amongst the mental disorders the most common conditions were:
If your condition isn’t explicitly listed, you could still qualify for benefits. You’ll want to be diligent about gathering your medical records, regularly see a specialist for treatment, and explain on your application how your condition makes it impossible to work.
To qualify for SSDI benefits, you must:
More on SSDI eligibility here.
To qualify for SSI, you must:
More on qualifying for SSI here.
You can apply for disability benefits with the help of a lawyer, or on your own. Most often, you’ll be required to file the application and supplementary documentation on your work history, your day-to-day functioning, and your treatment history.
There are three ways to submit an application for disability benefits:
If you’re not applying with a lawyer, it’s generally helpful to apply at the SSA office. They won’t give you legal advice, but can advise you on how to answer the application questions accurately.
It takes most people hours to submit an application because of the documentation needed.
Here’s what you’ll need to do to submit an application:
If you’re working with a lawyer, they should fill out your application for you (the right way), and confirm receipt with the SSA. (If you’d like more advice on how to fill out the initial application, or how you can find the right lawyer — Atticus can help out for free).
While some people have their application accepted at the initial decision stage — most people (~69.3%) are rejected, and have to file for reconsideration. ~91% of reconsiderations are also rejected, and applicants request a hearing with an administrative law judge.
At a hearing, more than 50% of people win benefits — and your odds increase threefold if you work with a lawyer. We wrote at length about what to expect at a hearing and your chances of winning your appeal.
The length of time it takes to get benefits can vary. Most applicants will be denied at first, and there will be waits from the SSA between stages of the appeal process.
In 2022, to receive an initial decision took 6.1 months on average (184 days).
The time to process reconsideration requests took another 6.1 months (183 days) on average.
The time you wait for your hearing date depends on your SSA hearing office. The average wait in California, between requesting a hearing and appearing at one, is anywhere from 10.5 months and 17 months.
Wait time for a hearing
Los Angeles (Downtown)
Los Angeles (West)
Adding these up, if you file your paperwork immediately, it would take an average 1.89 years to get disability benefits in California. Once you add in the time spent sending supplementary forms, filing for reconsideration, requesting a hearing, and waiting for the judge’s decision — most applicants will spend around two to two and a half years going from application to approval.
Sending the SSA your documentation as soon as possible is the only way to speed up this process — so it’s important to meet deadlines, and get forms and medical records their way as fast as possible. Your lawyer can help you stay on track, and will call to confirm the SSA has all the information they need.
The average monthly benefit for disabled workers in California was $1,395.93 per month (according to the most recent SSA data). The maximum possible disability check in 2023 is $3,627.
It’s easy to learn exactly what you would qualify for by signing up for an SSA.gov account. To check your potential benefit amount, and your SSDI work-history eligibility:
The maximum you can receive for SSI nationwide is $914 per month in 2023. The SSA will subtract any other regular monthly income from this amount. So if you make any additional income (stocks and investments, SNAP benefits, part-time work, etc.), that will be deducted from your monthly check.
The average monthly SSI payment in California is $765.06 per month.
When you’re applying, disability lawyers can save you from critical application missteps and save you weeks of paperwork.
At the hearing stage, they’re critical to have in your corner. They cross examine witnesses from the state and help you make the best possible case before a judge.
Overall, applicants with a lawyer on their side are three times more likely to win benefits than those without, and 83% of applicants have legal representation at the hearing stage.
If you’re trying to vet for a disability lawyer on your own, ask these questions before choosing one:
It can be challenging to suss out great lawyers from mediocre lawyers without a legal background. If you’d like to be matched with a lawyer who’s a great fit for your claim, Atticus can help (for free).
We’ve spent years vetting disability lawyers and have built a network of legal teams (chosen from the top 5% of firms). We trust them to treat our clients well, and to win their cases. If you want our help evaluating the right disability lawyer for you, sign up here.
To qualify for disability you need to have a condition that prevents you from working for at least a year. You’ll also need to meet certain work history requirements (for SSDI) or be within certain income limits (for SSI). For more on these requirements, read our full write up here.
Any condition that will prevent you from working for a year or more can qualify for disability benefits. Some of the most common conditions include musculoskeletal disorders, mental disorders, nervous system diseases, and circulatory system diseases. See our full list of conditions that qualify here.
It takes an average of 6.1 months to get an initial disability decision in California. Most people who apply are initially rejected, and need to appeal this decision. If you appeal and go to a hearing, the process takes around two years on average. Read more: How Long It Takes to Get Approved for Disability Benefits
The average SSDI payment in California is $1,395.93 per month. The average SSI payment is $765.06 per month. What you’ll earn is dependent on your income, or the amount you’ve historically paid into the Social Security program. Read more on what amount you can expect.
Answer the application questions truthfully, consistently, and succinctly. You should also ensure that you gather and submit all your medical records with your application. The SSA paperwork can be complicated, so our legal team has written a full guide to the application here.
Yes, California is one of the five states with its own state disability program. Residents can apply for California Disability Insurance, which offers payments for up to 52 weeks (one year). Work injuries aren’t covered, though. If your injury will keep you out of work longer, you can still apply for SSDI and SSI. Read more about the difference between SSDI and SSI here.
How long has your condition made it hard to work?
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