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A Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for Disability Benefits (Form SSA-16)

Jackie Jakab, Attorney
By Jackie Jakab, Attorney

Applying for Social Security disability benefits can feel overwhelming at the best of times. But don’t worry. We’ve talked with our team of experienced lawyers to put together this step-by-step guide to applying for disability benefits.

We’ll walk you through the main application form for disability benefits (SSA-16) and give you no-nonsense guidelines for how you communicate with the SSA. Plus there is advice and tips we’ve learned from our years of helping people to successfully apply for benefits.

First, let’s start with the basics of the application process.

How to apply for Social Security disability benefits

You must apply for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA) by completing Form SSA-16. The application form and process are the same whether you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). We’ll walk you through Form SSA-16 later in this article.

Where to submit your disability application

There are three ways to submit your application:

If you’re applying without a lawyer, we highly recommend going into your SSA office. (You might want to call to make an appointment first). The SSA staff can’t give you legal advice, but they can answer any questions you have about the form itself. If you’re applying with a disability lawyer, they should either fill out this form for you, or walk you through the most advantageous way to apply on your own.

Other forms you need to complete

Filling out the main application is only the first step. You can also expect the SSA to ask for more paperwork about your condition and your ability to work. Here are some other forms you should expect to fill out:

  • Function report (Form SSA-3373-BK) to discuss how your condition limits your activities
  • Work history report (Form SSA-3369-BK) to explain the work you’ve done in the past and why you can’t perform work that you’re qualified for
  • Work activity report (Form SSA-821-BK) to provide information about your work income and any special accommodations you may have received at work
  • Third-party function report (Form SSA-3380-BK), which you give to someone else who can detail how your condition limits your activities and affects your life
  • Supplemental pain questionnaire so you can explain the pain you experience and how it limits your daily activities

5 things to know before you apply for disability benefits

1. Your ultimate goal with the disability application is to prove that you have a disability and it makes you unable to work. If you’re over age 50, you need to prove you can no longer do the type of work you’ve done in the past. If you’re under age 50, you need to prove that your disability prevents you from doing any work.

2. It’s easier to get Social Security disability benefits if you’re over age 50. There’s never a guarantee that your claim will be approved, so everyone should approach the application the same way, but the SSA is more lenient with applicants over age 50.

3. Not everything about your life or your disability is included in your benefits application. Some things that are important to you aren’t necessary in the application because the SSA doesn’t consider them. Try to avoid the following in your application:

  • How your disability impacts your personal life, social life, or family life
  • How your condition affects you mentally and emotionally
  • Your life story outside of the specific questions on the application
  • Whether you ‘deserve’ benefits based on your character or background

4. Additionally, not every disability, symptom, or health condition is relevant to the SSA. In your application, only describe conditions that:

  • Directly affect your ability to work
  • Have been professionally diagnosed and are being treated

5. When you explain your work or income history, remember that the SSA is only trying to understand whether your disability prevents you from working, and which categories of jobs it leaves you unable to complete. As they assess your ability to work, the SSA will not consider:

  • Whether you could realistically get hired for position that you’re capable of doing
  • Whether the kinds of work you could qualify for would pay you enough to survive
  • Other factors that might hold you back from getting another type of work, such as your caregiving responsibilities or not having a driver’s license

8 tips for the disability application

In general, the goal is to give honest, concise, and consistent answers across all your application forms.

Below are the top eight disability application tips from our lawyers. They cover every stage of the process and we’ve included examples to demonstrate how they could actually appear on your application.

1. Keep your answers honest and concise

Don’t volunteer extra information about your life, your disability, or work unless it’s truly needed for the SSA to understand your answer. We know it sounds harsh, but the SSA is only concerned with your eligibility according to their very specific rules.

Examples:

Say “I can only sit for 20 to 30 minutes without pain,” instead of “I haven’t been able to watch a movie with my family in six years.”

But include anything necessary to understand your condition, like “I can only keep up with household laundry because my daughter does all the lifting, loading, and unloading.”

2. Keep all your answers consistent

Make sure your answers are consistent throughout the application package, including across the different forms you submit. The SSA will be on the lookout for answers that seem to contradict each other.

As an example, if you say that your arthritis restricts your range of motion, but later you mention cooking or dressing yourself without issue, that will raise a red flag for the reader.

3. Be detailed but don’t exaggerate

Don’t say anything on your application unless it’s true. Also be mindful of what could sound like exaggeration to someone else. The person reading your application won’t be as familiar with your condition as you are.

Examples:

Say “On the pain scale, my pain is 8/10 on my worst days, and 5/10 on 4-6 days a week,” instead of “I have constant 10/10 pain that keeps me from living my life.”

Say “I am hospitalized 3-4 times a month for episodes of severe pain,” instead of “My pain is 10/10 every day.”

4. Ensure all information is accurate and up-to-date

Especially make sure that all contact information is correct. For example, if the SSA can’t reach your doctor at the phone number you provided, they won’t spend time trying to reach your doctor. They’ll just abandon pursuing your records until you follow up with the right contact.

If you’re applying for SSI, also make sure that all financial information is correct and up-to-date.

5. Send additional information as quickly as possible

If the SSA requests additional or supplemental information, submit it within 10 days. Waiting longer could greatly delay your application. As it is, an average SSDI application can take more than two years.

6. List all conditions that keep you from working

Include all disabilities and health conditions that affect your ability to work, even if they aren’t the main reason that you’re not working. Also include something whether it’s mild or severe. You may have other conditions that impact your life, but the SSA is primarily concerned with whether something keeps you from holding a job.

Examples:

Mild anxiety or cognitive issues can be included since they may prevent you from working certain types of jobs, even if they aren’t the main reason you’re applying.

But high cholesterol, eczema, or hypertension may not affect your ability to work, even if severe, so they probably shouldn’t be included.

7. Only list conditions you’re being actively treated for

It’s important that you only include health conditions on your application if they’ve been diagnosed by a doctor and you’re being actively treated for them. Your doctor can’t determine eligibility for disability benefits, but the SSA will check whether you’re treating your condition. If you aren’t, the SSA might think you aren’t seriously trying to work and deny your application.

When you describe mental and physical symptoms, include your current treatment plan and describe your symptoms as they exist with that treatment.

8. Answer every question

Never leave fields blank or unanswered on any of your application forms. Otherwise, the SSA may consider your application incomplete and discard it. If you truly don’t have a response, write “none” or “N/A.”

How to fill out Form SSA-16, line-by-line

If you’ve made it this far, you might be feeling a little intimidated. But don’t worry. Not every part of the SSA-16 form is confusing or highly detailed. In fact, much of it is straightforward.

We’ll walk you through all 26 questions in the 2022 Form SSA-16 — the simple ones, and the ones that need a little more explanation.

Questions 1-4: Basic contact information

Start by giving the SSA the basic contact information they need to identify and communicate with you. If you’re filling this out for someone else, make sure to use the applicant’s information.

1. Name

2. Social Security number (SSN)

3. Gender you were assigned at birth / that will match the SSA’s record

4. If your preferred language isn’t English, the language you feel most comfortable speaking and writing

Questions 5-8: Demographic information

Next, the SSA will ask for more information about your identity to make sure they can identify you. These questions can also help the SSA locate your government records even if you’re missing the more common ones, like a birth certificate. Answer all these questions truthfully. Incomplete or inaccurate answers can hurt your case later on.

5. When and where were you born?

6. Do you have United States citizenship or are you an alien? If you’re an alien, did you enter the country lawfully?

7. If the name you were given at birth is different from your current name, provide your birth name along with any other names you’ve used in your life.

8. Any other Social Security numbers you’ve used (check the box for “No” if you’ve always had the same SSN).

Question 9: When did your condition begin to prevent you from working?

Full text: “When do you believe your condition(s) become severe enough to prevent you from working (even if you have never worked)?”

If your disability was caused by a specific incident, like injury or exposure to a toxin, write the the first day you could no longer do your job the way you did before the incident.

If you’re living with a chronic condition, or illness that got worse over time, this question might be more tricky. Here are some tips to help you answer:

  • Was there a point when you had a job but were let go because your symptoms prevented you from going into work? What was the date when you were let go?
  • Did you ever choose to leave a job because your symptoms made it too difficult to do the job? What was the date you left that job?
  • If you don’t have a specific date, at least give a specific month, like June 2022.
  • Make sure your answer lines up with the rest of the data in your forms. If you claim symptoms kept you out of work starting in June, but your work history shows you got another full time job in August, that will raise a red flag.

Question 10: Have you worked in the railroad industry?

This question is a checkbox. Also check “Yes” if your spouse works for the railroad or if you have an ex-spouse who worked for the railroad while you were married.

Question 11: Foreign Social Security credits

Full text: Do you have Social Security credits (for example, based on work or residence) under another country's Social Security System?

You can only qualify for SSDI if you have enough work credits, meaning you’ve worked and paid enough Social Security taxes. But this question is only about Social Security programs that you paid into besides the United States. If you have only worked and paid taxes in the U.S. then you can check “No” and move to the next question.

Question 12: Do you have a pension or annuity?

Full text: Are you entitled to, or do you expect to be entitled to, a pension or annuity (or a lump sum in place of a pension or annuity) based on your work after 1956 not covered by Social Security?

Answer “Yes” to this question if you currently receive or expect to receive a pension or annuity for work you’ve done that didn’t require you to pay into Social Security. Only include work done after 1956. If you do answer yes, you need to list the month and year that the pension or annuity payments started (or will start if they haven’t yet).

Question 13: Marriage

This is a long, detailed question about your marriage status and history. It includes multiple parts about how long you were married, how it ended, and whether you had any dependent children from the marriage.

These questions can feel very personal or even invasive. But the SSA asks these questions to assess whether you might qualify for benefits through any of your partners or former partners. Even if you don’t have a work history, you might be eligible for benefits if:

  • You were married for more than 10 years.
  • Your marriage ended with your spouse’s death.
  • You had to care for a dependent child after the marriage ended.
  • In some situations, your spouse’s income might also help you qualify for SSDI, even if you don’t have your own work history.

Question 13a is a checkbox and if you say you’ve never been married you can move to question 14. Then question 13b asks for your current spouse’s name and Social Security number, as well as information on who performed the wedding (a religious clergyman, a public official, or someone else).

Question 13c is about previous marriages you had. If you have no previous marriages, write “None” on the first line instead of leaving it blank, and then move on to question 13d.

You may need to fill out question 13d if you care for any dependents — like children who are disabled or under age 16 — from a marriage, even if you already mentioned that marriage above. If you don’t take care of any dependents from a marriage, write “None” on the first line of 13d instead of leaving it blank.

If you need to list more marriage or dependents than you can fit in this section, use the “Remarks” section on page five. Remember that there’s no need to give extra detail about your marriages here.

Question 14: Children who could get benefits

If your disability claim is approved, your children may also qualify to receive benefits through your application. This applies only to children who are disabled or handicapped OR under age 18 OR aged 18 or 19 but attending elementary or secondary school full-time. No other children qualify under this section.

If you have children who meet the criteria above, write their full legal names in the box.

Question 15: Social Security eligibility

This question has two parts and asks whether you have worked jobs where you paid Social Security taxes since 1978. Social Security taxes are usually removed from your paychecks. If you were self-employed, you may have paid them through quarterly estimated tax payments and self-employment tax.

Question 15a asks if you’ve worked such jobs and 15b asks you to write down any years between 1978 and this year when you didn’t have income that required you to pay Social Security taxes.

Question 16: Brief work history

List the name of all employers you’ve had this year or last year. There’s no need to include places you worked in before last year. Also write when you started each job (even if you started it before last year) and when you left each job. If you haven’t left a job, write “Not Ended."

After this SSA-16 form, you’ll also complete a more detailed work history report as part of your application.

Question 17: Self employment

If you’ve been self-employed this year or last year, complete question 17. Part A has a yes or no checkbox and Part B asks what type of self-employment business you worked in. Give the simplest answer you can. Say what your job was without adding where you worked or what your job duties were.

There’s also a checkbox asking whether you earned at least $400 from your self-employment last year. This question asks about net earnings, which is your total self-employment income minus business expenses.

Question 18: Income

There are two parts to this question. Write your total income from last year on line 18a and your total income so far this year on 18b. Make sure to include income from self-employment and any wages you earned from another employer. If you haven’t earned any income, write “None.”

Your answers here will help the SSA determine which benefits program you qualify for, and how much you might be eligible to receive. SSDI eligibility doesn’t depend on income but you’re ineligible for SSI benefits if you have income of more than $841. (Even if you earn less, it will decrease your maximum possible SSI benefit.)

Question 19: Are you still unable to work?

With this question, the SSA is starting to investigate your disability and how it affects your ability to work. (After completing the SSA-16 form, you’ll also complete a more detailed Function Report.)

If you’re still unable to go back to work, you’ll check the yes box in 19a and move to question 20.

If you have been able to go back to work since your injury, illness, or disability first left you unable to work, check the no box and use 19b to write the date you returned to work. Even if you’ve gone back to work, finish the application because you might still be able to get back pay.

Question 20: Work injuries

The question has a simple yes or no checkbox, asking if your injury is related to your work. Check the yes box if your condition was caused by a one-time event at work or if it’s a long-term result from work (like if you developed carpal tunnel from doing the same motion at work for years).

Question 21: Blindness

Another yes or no question, check “Yes” if you’re blind or if you have low vision even when you wear glasses or contacts.

It’s not enough to be legally blind or just have a strong prescription. You need to meet the SSA’s specific definition of blindness — even while wearing glasses or contacts.

  • To be considered blind or low vision by the SSA, you must have central visual acuity for distance of 20 of 200 or less in your better eye with use of a correcting lens, or a visual field limitation in your better eye, such that the widest diameter of the visual field sub tens an angle no greater than 20 degrees.
  • You have to meet this definition even with your glasses or contact lenses. If you can correct your poor vision, it’s not considered a disability by the SSA.
  • If you’re confused about whether you meet this definition, try asking your optometrist or other eye doctor for assistance.

Question 22: Are you filing for other disability benefits?

In question 22, you’ll let the SSA know if you’re applying for any other disability benefit programs in addition to SSDI. Check the yes box if you have applied for another program already or if you plan to apply in the near future.

There’s space to indicate which other benefits programs you’re applying for, including Veterans Administration Benefits, workers’ compensation, and Black Lung benefits. If you’re applying for something that isn’t listed, check “Other” and also complete a Workers' Compensation/Public Disability Benefit Questionnaire.

Question 22 is your chance to apply for SSI. If you want to apply for SSI, make sure that you check off "Yes" in question 22a and check off "Supplemental Security Income" in question 22b. The SSA will then process your application for both programs at the same time. Unsure if you qualify for SSI? Apply anyway. There’s no harm in trying for both and applying for SSI and SSDI at the same time is often a good idea.

Question 23: Other sources of income 

Next, the SSA will ask if you received any income from an employer — besides regular wages or self-employment wages — after the date you wrote in question 9 (the date that your disability started). Question 23a is for any of this pay that you’ve already received, and 23b is for any pay you expect to get in the future.

Examples: Other sources of income you might be entitled to include sick pay, vacation pay, an unpaid bonus, or a legal settlement from a workplace injury.

If your answer to question 23 is yes, you’ll need to write down the amount of those payments and then use the “Remarks” section on page five to say what the payments are for. Just like in the rest of the form, keep your answers short and simple.

As an example, say “I received $400 of sick pay from [insert employer name]” without explaining why you left or other information about the payment.

Question 24-25: Caregiving

These two questions address whether you’ve had to care for any dependent children or parents during a year when you had no income.

Your answers here will help the SSA assess your day-to-day abilities and capacity to do work. If you have been someone’s caregiver, it’s very important to give truthful answers even if it’s difficult. If you have a hard time caring for your dependents, being honest about that in your application will help your case.

For example, if you apply and say you can’t work or fully take care of yourself, but then you say that you’ve spent the past year taking care of a toddler on your own, the SSA could question whether you’re actually unable to work or just needed time to care for your child.

It’s also very important that your answers here are consistent with your other paperwork, such as your Function Report, which specifically asks if you take care of anyone else.

Question 26: Eligibility for your caregiver’s benefits

Finally, the SSA-16 asks whether you might be eligible for benefits through your caregiver.

If you’ve been unable to work because of your disability since before you were 22, and your caregiver is either deceased or receiving benefits, you need to let the SSA know. Check “Yes” if this applies to you, and then make sure to enter your caregiver’s name and Social Security number in page five’s “Remarks” section.

Where can I get help applying for disability?

First of all, it is 100% possible to apply for disability benefits on your own. However, you may be better off getting help from a professional. The process is long and this main SSA-16 form is one of the simplest parts of the process.

If you need help filling out disability forms, we recommend working with a disability lawyer. Applicants who work with a lawyer are three times more likely to win their case. And believe it or not, lawyers are much better equipped to help with the disability process than people in other fields. For example, doctors and social workers are usually less knowledgeable about SSDI and SSI than disability lawyers. After all, applying for benefits is mostly a legal process.

With the advice in this guide, you can make sense of the initial application and submit it on your own, but there’s nothing wrong with asking a legal professional for help. You should especially get a lawyer if your application is rejected. They can greatly increase your chances of a successful appeal.

Atticus can help you connect with an experienced disability lawyer if you need help. Our services are completely free and you don’t have to pay any lawyer unless they win your case. Start with our 2-minute disability quiz and one of our team members will reach out to talk about next steps.

Ready to get benefits today?
Jackie Jakab, Attorney
Jackie Jakab, AttorneyJackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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