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An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Applying for Disability Benefits

Jackie Jakab, Attorney
By Jackie Jakab, Attorney

No matter what, dealing with an injury or illness is stressful. But if you suddenly find yourself unable to work, it can be especially challenging. 

On top of managing your symptoms and trying to maintain some quality of life, you’re now concerned about your financial security, too! 

That’s where disability benefits come in. But unfortunately, applying for disability isn’t exactly a stress reliever. Even if you know you deserve benefits, the process can feel overwhelming.

And that’s fair — applying for disability is a complex and time-consuming process. But it doesn’t need to be confusing. There are clear, defined steps to follow as you apply. Today, we’re here to walk you through them. 

First, you’ll prepare and submit your application. Then, you’ll follow up with appeals and hearings, since most applications get denied the first time around. 

Here’s what you can expect, step by step, as you apply for disability benefits. 

Stage 1: Apply For Benefits

1. Assess your situation

Does the Social Security Administration (SSA) consider your condition a disability?

Unfortunately, not everyone struggling with a health condition is eligible for disability benefits. For the government to consider your condition a disability, it must: 

  • Be related to an illness or injury diagnosed by a physician
  • Last for at least 12 months (or be likely to result in death)
  • Keep you from working at your current job
  • Keep you from doing other jobs

Some illnesses, like terminal cancer, are considered “listing-level conditions”. If you are facing one of these, you can expect your disability application to move ahead much more quickly 


Unsure if you qualify? Take our 2-minute quiz. It'll tell you if you're eligible, what disability programs you're eligible for, and which program will get you the best benefits.


2. Decide which program to apply for

Most people will qualify for one of two government programs; Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). 

SSDI is based on your employment history, with payouts based on how much you’ve earned. SSI payouts are much lower, and come with more restrictions. 

Get more information on both programs in our Disability Claims 101 guide

3. Collect paperwork and documentation 

Examine the application, and determine what paperwork, records, and documentation the SSA needs as evidence of your disability. You will want to have all these materials ready to go before you actually submit your application.  

The SSA might ask for documentation including: 

  • Medical records
  • Educational records 
  • Work history 
  • Your doctor’s contact information
  • Financial information

You could also consider keeping a symptom diary, and asking your doctor to note your entries in your medical records. This can become valuable documentation later in the process. 

4. Fill out and submit your application. 

SSI and SSDI application forms are very in-depth. They can be upwards of 30 pages long, and take hours of work to complete. This is why it’s so crucial to be well-prepared, with all the information and materials you’ll need before you start. 

Your attorney can also help you make sure the forms are filled out properly. This is just one more reason it’s so helpful to have the assistance of a lawyer, even early in the application process. 

You can choose to submit your application through the SSA website, in person, or even over the phone. 

5. Provide supplemental information

No matter how careful you are, the SSA may respond to your application by asking you for more evidence or documentation. 

This isn’t a reason to worry — the SSA is just trying to understand your situation more deeply. 

Carefully collect and submit the information they ask for. Often, this will mean sending over more records and documents. 

The SSA might also request an examination with one of their medical experts. 

Tips for your SSA Medical Examination

A medical examination is nothing to fear. But, you do need to be mindful of how you talk about your condition with the examiner. Here are a few tips to set you up for success.

  • When asked about your symptoms, describe them how they feel on most days, not how you’re feeling at that moment.
  • If needed, remind the doctor why you are there so they ask relevant questions. For example, if they only do a physical exam and you’re living with depression, reiterate that your condition is mental, not physical.
  • Ask to see your medical record at the end of the exam, to make sure what you reported has actually been added in.

6. Await your decision

Congratulations — your application is complete! 

It’s time to wait for the SSA’s decision, and move ahead with the hearings and appeals process if you aren’t approved. 

Stage 2: Hearings and Appeals  

1. Receive your decision 

If you don’t have a listing-level condition (ALS, stage 4 cancer, etc.), your first application will most likely be rejected.

But don’t despair — this is an expected part of the process. Only 20% of applications get approved at this stage, and most of them have fast-track conditions. 

Nor do you need to apply over and over again if you get rejected. With the help of your lawyer, you can appeal the decision and pursue more hearings, making your case stronger every time. 

To learn more about how many times you can apply for disability, check out this guide

2. Request reconsideration 

If you get rejected, you have 60 days to ask the SSA to examine your application a second time. 

But unless they missed something important, rejection at this stage, again, is typical. Only 10% of applications get approved after reconsideration, so don’t get discouraged. 

3. Hearing

After reconsideration, you and your lawyer will request a face-to-face or phone hearing, where you can make your case to a judge. Again, you have 60 days from your last decision to request a hearing. 

In attendance at the trial will be: 

  • A judge
  • A vocational expert 
  • You and your lawyer
  • A hearing reporter
  • Sometimes, a medical expert

This is when you’ll really get a chance to state your case, explain why you need benefits, and hopefully change the decision. 

If you get to the hearing stage, your odds are much better — 50% of applications are approved post-hearing, and if you have a lawyer, your chances of success are 3X higher! 

For more advice, read our guide to preparing for your disability hearing. 

What to say at your hearing

At your hearing, be prepared to answer both specific, and open-ended questions. 

The judge will interview you, and the medical and vocational experts, to evaluate how much your disability impacts your daily life. 

Your lawyer will coach you on what exactly to say at your hearing, but there are some general tips that can help you make a good impression and answer tricky questions. 

When speaking at your hearing: 

  • Only answer questions asked of you specifically. Never jump in on a question asked of someone else 
  • Be concise, and give simple answers without over-explaining. Yes or no answers are perfectly fine. 
  • Be specific and concrete. Try saying “I can only stand for 2-3 minutes without pain,” not “standing is hard for me”
  • Describe how your symptoms feel on most days, not at the present moment 
  • Don’t undersell or downplay your symptoms, even if you have some good days 

4. Appeal

Getting denied doesn’t have to be the end of the process, and plenty of successful applications appeal multiple times.

If your application isn’t successful post-hearing, you and your lawyer can re-appeal, and schedule more hearings so you can make your case again.  

A good disability lawyer will improve your case based on the judge’s feedback, so you have a better chance of getting approved in the future. 

5. Get approved — and get paid! 

After finally getting approved for benefits, it’s time to figure out how much, and when, you’ll get paid. 

Your benefits depend on which program you’re in, how much you earned over your employment history, and whether you qualify for backpay. Backpay is a lump sum covering the time you were disabled, but hadn’t yet been approved for benefits. 

Just like the rest of the benefits process, determining your payout can get pretty complicated. For more information, check out our guide on how and when you’ll get disability backpay and benefits.

How long does this take? 

Getting disability benefits can take a long time. In most cases, it can take 2-2.5 years to get a final decision, and start getting benefits payments. 

If you suffer from a listing-level condition, the process could be a lot faster. But if you need to move through multiple hearings and appeals, it could take longer — potentially even 4 or 5 years. 

Applying as quickly as you can after you become disabled is very important. To learn more, read our article explaining how long it takes to get disability benefits

Help is available!

It takes a lot of time and effort to navigate this process. To make sure that investment pays off, we strongly suggest working with a lawyer at every stage of the application process. 

Applicants with legal representation are 3X more likely to get approved for benefits. And thankfully, cost doesn’t need to be a barrier to working with a lawyer. 

You won’t pay anything to use Atticus’s legal services. We are here to help you get disability benefits, and to make the process less confusing. Fill out our 2-minute questionnaire to get a personalized consultation about your case. 

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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