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Apply for Disability in California: State, Federal, and Private Programs

Jackie Jakab, Attorney
By Jackie Jakab, Attorney

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. 

What disability programs are there in California?

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.” 

You can read more about the base period, and how to calculate your potential earnings here

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 ten 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 / 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).  


Qualifying for disability in California

What medical conditions qualify you for SSDI (disability) in California?

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:

  • Mental disorders: 36.3%
  • Diseases of the musculo-skeletal system: 28.6%
  • DIseases of the nervous system: 10.4%
  • Diseases of the circulatory system: 5.9%
  • Injuries: 3.8%
  • Neoplasms: 3.2%
  • Diseases of the Genito-urinary system: 2.4%
  • Endocrine nutritional and metabolic diseases: 2.1%
  • Congenital Abnormalities: .7%
  • Unknown: 1.8%
  • Infectious and parasitic diseases: 1.5%
  • Diseases of the digestive system: 1.4%
  • Diseases of the respiratory system: 1.2%
  • Diseases of the blood and blood forming organs .2%
  • Diseases of the skin and subcutaneous tissue: .2%
  • Other: .2%

Amongst the mental disorders the most common conditions were:

  • Depression, bipolar, and related disorders (90,811 people)
  • Intellectual disorders (57,403 people)
  • Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders (51,004 people)

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. 

Other qualifications for SSDI and SSI in California

SSDI in California

To qualify for SSDI benefits, you must:

  • Be under 67 years old.
  • Meet the requirements for “work credits” for your age. You can check your work credits by making an account at SSA.gov—but most people qualify if they’ve worked five out of the last ten years. 

More on eligibility here. 

SSI in California

To qualify for SSI, you must:

  • Having very little in terms of assets like personal or retirement savings (less than $2,000 or less than $3,000 if you are married).
  • Have very little or no income from any source (generally less than 1,000 per month)

More on qualifying for SSI here. 

How to apply for permanent disability in California

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. 

How do I submit an application? 

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.

How should I prepare my application?

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:

  • Collect your records. This includes medical records, contact information for doctors, work history, education records, bank account information, and other documents you will need to include with your application. 
  • Fill out and submit the application and include supplemental documents and forms. All told, the forms can be more than 30 pages and take hours to complete. When filling out the forms, be extremely clear and specific about your limitations and pain level while remaining realistic. It’s also critical to make sure that you’re consistent with your answers between forms, as they often ask similar questions. 
  • Follow-up with SSA right after you submit. Sometimes applications get lost, and the SSA has a lot of claims to get through. You’ll want to confirm they have received and are processing your application. 
  • Respond to any requests from SSAimmediately. They may ask for supplemental information or request that you see a SSA doctor. You will typically have 10 days to submit documentation. 

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). 

What comes next?

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, nearly 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

How long does it take to get disability benefits in California? 

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 2021, to receive an initial decision took 5.5 months on average (165 days).

The time to process reconsideration requests took 4.9 months (147 days).

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.

Office

Wait time

Fresno

17 months

Long Beach

14 months

Los Angeles (Downtown)

14 months

Los Angeles (West)

14 months

Moreno Valley

16 months

Norwalk

15 months

Oakland

12 months

Orange

12 months

Pasadena

13 months

Richmond

9 months

Sacramento

17 months

San Bernardino

11 months

San Diego

10 months

San Francisco

13 months

San Jose

13 months

San Rafael

10.5 months

Santa Barbara

14 months

Stockton

11 months

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. 

SSDI payments in California

The average monthly benefit for disabled workers in California was $1,311.61 per month (according to the most recent SSA data). This is slightly more than the nationwide average of $1,277.05

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: 

  • Visit SSA.gov
  • Click “mySocialSecurity”
  • Create an account using your Social Security number
  • Scroll down to the section titled “Disability”

SSI payments in California

The maximum you can receive for SSI nationwide is $841 per month. The SSA will subtract any other regular monthly income from this amount. So if you make any additional income (ie. 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 ​​$549.21 per month—below the national average of $568.13. 

SSDI/SSI Attorneys in California: How to find the right lawyer

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:

  • Their primary area of practice: Confirm that they only take, or primarily take disability cases—so you know they’ll understand, and prioritize, your case.
  • Reviews: Make sure you really read the content of the reviews. A few bad reviews here and there shouldn’t be cause for alarm—but keep an eye out for patterns. If  you’re reading the same points over and over again, like “never calls me back” or “doesn’t show up at hearing”—this might not be a lawyer you can trust.
  • Location: Having a local lawyer could be good since they can know the local judges, and you yourself can get to know the lawyer personally. If you find a great fit that works nationally—see if they have a history of taking cases in your region.
  • Time practicing: You want to look for lawyers that have been working for a long time as there’s a higher chance of them already working on cases similar to yours. New lawyers can be good too, but they’re harder to vet without a legal background.

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.

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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