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

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
September 30, 2022  ·  14 min read
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Applying for Social Security disability benefits can be confusing. If you feel overwhelmeed by the process, know that you are not along. We conducted a survey about the disability application process, and out the 1,003 individuals polled, only 5% had 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 insurance benefits (SSA-16) and give you no-nonsense guidelines for communicating with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Plus, there are advice and tips we’ve learned from our years of helping people to apply for benefits successfully.

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 do you submit your disability application?

There are three ways to submit your application:

We highly recommend going into your local SSA office if you're applying without a lawyer. (You should call to make an appointment first). The SSA staff can’t give you legal advice, but they can answer any questions about the form. 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 disability application 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 that 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 must verify 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 disability is included in your benefits application. Some important things 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. 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 only tries 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 the 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
Ready to get benefits today?

8 tips for the disability application

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 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 genuinely 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 rules.

For example, 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

Ensure your answers are consistent throughout the application package, including across the forms you submit. The SSA will look 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 an exaggeration to someone else. The person reading your application won’t be as familiar with your condition as you are.

You should 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

All contact information must be correct. For example, if the SSA can’t reach your doctor at the phone number you provided, they won’t spend time trying to call your doctor. They will stop 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 you’re not working. You may have other conditions impacting your life, but the SSA is primarily concerned with whether something keeps you from working.

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 a doctor has diagnosed them 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. The SSA might think you aren’t seriously trying to work and deny your application if you aren't.

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

Form SSA-16 might seem intimidating, but much of it is straightforward. We’ll walk you through all 25 questions in the Form SSA-16.

Questions 1-3: Basic contact information

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

1. Name

2. Social Security number (SSN)

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

Questions 4-7: Demographic information

Next, the SSA will ask for more information about your identity to ensure 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.

4. When and where were you born?

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

6. 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.

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

Question 8: 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 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 to 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 January 2024.
  • Make sure your answer matches 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 9: 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 10: 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 you paid into besides the United States. If you have only worked and paid taxes in the U.S., you can check “No” and move to the next question.

Question 11: 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 answer yes, you need to list the month and year the pension or annuity payments started (or will start if they haven’t yet).

Question 12: 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. However, 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 12a is a checkbox and if you say you’ve never been married you can move to question 13. Then, question 12b 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 12c 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 12d.

You may need to fill out question 12d if you care for any dependents — like children who are disabled or under age 16 — from a marriage, even if you mentioned that marriage above. If you don’t care for any dependents from a marriage, write “None” on the first line of 12d instead of leaving it blank.

If you need to list more marriages 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 13: 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 14: Social Security eligibility

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

Question 14a asks if you’ve worked such jobs and 14b 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 15: Brief work history:

List the names 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 16: Self-employment

Whether or not you’ve been self-employed this year or last, complete question 16. 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 or what your duties were.

A checkbox also asks whether you earned at least $400 from your self-employment last year. This question asks about net earnings: your total self-employment income minus business expenses.

Question 17: Income

There are two parts to this question. Write your total income from last year on line 17a and so far this year on 17b. 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 $943. (Even if you earn less, it will decrease your maximum possible SSI benefit.)

Question 18: Are you still unable to work?

With this question, the SSA is investigating 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 cannot go back to work, you’ll check the “Yes” box in 18a and move to question 29.

If you have been able to return to work since your injury, illness, or disability first left you unable to work, check the “No” box and use 18b 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 19: Work injuries

The question has a simple “Yes” or “No” checkbox, asking if your injury is related to your work. Check “Yes” if a one-time event at work caused your condition 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 20: 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 have a strong prescription. You must meet the SSA’s 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 a distance of 20 of 200 or less in your better eye with the 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 must 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, ask your optometrist or other eye doctor for assistance.

Question 21: Are you filing for other disability benefits?

In question 21, you’ll let the SSA know if you’re applying for other disability benefit programs besides SSDI. Check the “Yes” box if you have already applied for another program or plan to apply soon.

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 complete a Workers' Compensation/Public Disability Benefit Questionnaire.

Question 21 is your chance to apply for SSI. If you want to apply for SSI, make sure that you check off "Yes" in question 21a and check off "Supplemental Security Income" in question 21b. The SSA will then process your application for both disability programs simultaneously. Unsure if you qualify for SSI? Apply anyway. There’s no harm in trying for both, and applying for SSI and SSDI benefits at the same time is often a good idea.

Question 22: 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 8 (the date that your disability started). Question 22a is for any of this pay you’ve already received, and 22b is for any pay you expect to get.

For example, 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 22 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. Like the rest of the form, keep your answers short and simple.

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

Question 23-24: 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, giving truthful answers is very important, even if it’s difficult. If you have difficulty caring for your dependents, being honest 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 unable to work or just needed time to care for your child.

It’s also imperative 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 25: 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 enter your caregiver’s name and Social Security number in page five’s “Remarks” section.


Get help applying for disability

You can apply for disability benefits on your own, but getting help from a professional can be extremely beneficial. 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. 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 the SSA rejects your initial application. A lawyer can greatly increase your chances of a successful appeal.

Atticus can help you connect with an experienced disability lawyer if you need help. There are no upfront costs — you only pay a lawyer if they win your case. Start with our 2-minute disability quiz, and one of our team members will reach out to talk about the next steps.


How to Apply (SSA-16) FAQ

Where do I submit my disability application?

You can submit your application over the phone, on the SSA website, or at your local SSA office. If you’re not working with an attorney, we highly recommend you go into the office so you can ask questions. 

How do I apply for Social Security disability? 

Request or download Form SSA-16 from ssa.gov and gather all of your employment and medical records. Read our full application guide to ensure your best chances of success.

When should I apply for disability?

You should apply for SSDI/SSI benefits as soon as your disability prevents you from working. Waiting too long can impact your eligibility. You’ll also start accruing back pay from the moment you apply; applying early can influence the size of your first check. 


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Related resources:

What Conditions Qualify for Disability?

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

Everything You Should Know About Disability Benefits (SSDI and SSI)

By Sarah Aitchison

See what you qualify for

How long has your condition made it hard to work?

Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie 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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