Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a need-based program that provides monthly income and health insurance to people unable to work. The government requires you to fill out an application proving you’re disabled and need financial assistance.
To win your case, you have to convince the SSA, without question, that your medical condition is so severe you cannot work—even in a modified role.
For most people, getting SSI benefits is a multi-stage process. You’ll submit your application without legal help. Most people (about 76%) are initially denied. Then you’ll be able to appeal that denial—which Atticus can help you with.
This article explains how to make sure you’re eligible, how to submit your application, and what to do if your rejection letter comes.
We've complied an application checklist for you below:
1. Make sure you’re eligible for SSI.
To be eligible for SSI, you must:
Be age 65 or younger (if you’re older than 65, you can get SSI without proving you’re disabled);
Be blind OR have a medical condition that keeps you from working, which is expected to last one year or result in death
Have less than $2,000 in countable assets if you’re unmarried, or less than $3,000 if you’re married. In other words, the things that you own should not be worth more than these amounts. Your house, the land you live on, and one car don’t count (usually), but things like cash, bank accounts, stocks, land that you don’t live on, and additional cars count.
Have less than $914 in countable monthly income if you’re unmarried, or less than $1,371 if you’re married. Countable income means anything you receive during a month and can use to meet your needs for food or shelter. This can be cash or things you can use to get food or shelter. Food stamps and housing assistance don’t count.
Once you’re sure you’re eligible, don’t wait to apply. You should apply as soon as it is clear that your condition is going to last a full year and you have the evidence to prove it. Once your doctor is pretty sure your condition is going to keep you out of work for a year, there is no reason to wait.
2. Call your local field office to set up an appointment.
You can find the phone number for your local SSA office here.
You can also call the SSA’s national 800 number at 1-800-772-1213. This number usually has longer wait times. When you call, make sure to tell them you want to schedule a time for someone to help you complete the entire SSI application.
You may have to insist—the SSA often tries to tell people to submit their application online, but we’ve found that having someone help you is better. The application is confusing, and it helps to have face-to-face communication and the chance to ask questions.
3. Prepare for your appointment.
First, make an account on SSA.gov and click on “sign in/up.” My Social Security is an online portal designed to give you easy access to your Social Security information. You can use your account to request a replacement Social Security card, check your application status, and estimate future benefits.
Then, you’ll want to gather all your paperwork, including:
1. A copy of your Social Security card or record of your Social Security number.
2. Proof of age: birth certificate, passport, or other government-issued ID.
If you were born outside the U.S., bring your proof of citizenship or lawful status, like your Permanent Resident Card number.
3. Information about where you live: your mortgage or lease and landlord’s name.
You’ll also need to bring the names, dates of birth, medical assistance cards or Social Security numbers for all household members; your deed or property tax bill; and information about household costs for rent, mortgage, food, and utilities.
4. Proof of income: pay stubs, bank statements, insurance policies, and other information about your income and the things that you own.
If you’re self-employed, bring a tax return for the last tax year.
If you’re receiving any child support or alimony, bring a copy of your court order.
Make sure you have documentation that lists your bank account number (or write it down and bring it with you) so you can set up direct deposit.
This might seem invasive, but you’re required to provide proof of the financial resources that you have. This is required for SSI because SSI is designed for people with limited resources and income. If you don’t provide this information, there’s a big chance that you’ll be denied.
5. Proof of resources:
Bank statements for all checking and savings accounts; a deed or tax appraisal for all property you own except the house you live in; life or disability insurance policies; burial contracts, burial plots etc.; certificates of deposit, stock, mutual funds, or bonds; and titles or registrations for vehicles like cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, or campers.
If you are or were married for 10 years or more, your spouse’s name, birth date, Social Security number, and date and place of marriage.
If you have children, the name, age, and Social Security numbers of your children.
6. Medical information: Bring all of your medical reports, if you have them; the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of doctors, hospitals and clinics that you have been to (and any other provider you saw for medical service); the approximate dates you were treated; and the names of all prescription and non-prescription medications you take.
7. Work history: Bring a current resume, if you have one. Otherwise, make sure you know your job titles; type of business; names of employers; dates worked; hours worked per day and per week; days worked per week; the rates of pay you did in the 15 years before you became unable to work due to your illnesses, injuries, or conditions; and a description of your job duties for the type of work you performed.
You’ll want to review the application before you apply. Read through the written application and disability report forms before your appointment so you know what questions you’ll have to answer.
Take notes on your medical situation, and bring them with you to your appointment. Sometimes, filling out the application can get stressful and you might forget things. It helps to list your symptoms and organize your thoughts beforehand. You can even keep a daily journal as a way to document your daily routine and anything that is difficult for you because of your illness or conditions.
4. Attend your appointment and fill out your entire application.
Plan on spending at least 3 hours at the SSA office (or on the phone, if you’re doing it remotely). Bring all of your documents, an extra pen and paper.
Some tips for filling out the application once you’re at the SSA office:
Include everything. Make sure you list all diagnosed medical problems, even if they’re not the main reason you aren’t working. The disability office needs to take into consideration all conditions that erode your ability to work.
Be detailed, but don’t exaggerate. If you don’t know the medical terminology, it’s okay. For example, you don’t need to write that you have ankylosing spondylitis, you can just write that you have back problems.
Avoid “yes or no” answers. Try to include as much detail as possible. Don’t assume the SSA knows what you’re talking about, or how your conditions limit your ability to work.
Keep copies of things you send to the SSA. Keep track of the dates you send information to them, or talk to them and track the name of the Social Security employees that you speak with.
Ask questions if you aren’t sure. Your SSA agent can’t give legal advice, but they can give you advice on how to answer the questions appropriately.
5. Fill out and send back follow up paperwork ASAP.
After you apply, you can expect the SSA will send you follow-up paperwork. It is extremely important that you fill it out and send it back as soon as possible (most forms are due within 15 days). This may include:
Function report: Here, you’ll discuss how your illness, injuries or condition limits your activities.
3rd Party function report: You’ll give this report to someone who can speak in detail about how your illness, injuries or condition limits your activities and affects your life.
Work history report: On this form you’ll discuss why you can’t perform work that you’re qualified for, the work you used to do, the skills you used and the jobs you’ve had in the last 15 years before you became unable to work.
Work activity report: This form requests information about your work income and any accommodations you received at work.
Remember to be detailed! For example, when the Function Report asks what you do each day, don’t say “I wake up and sit on the couch.” It’s better to say “I wake up, then it takes me 20 minutes to get out of bed due to my pain. I take a bath seated, because my legs give out. Then, I use my walker to get to the couch to sit, because that is the only position that doesn’t intensify my pain.”
Sometimes, the Disability Examiner assigned to your case will schedule an appointment called a Consultative Exam (CE). You’ll have to call the number on the CE notice to confirm your appointment. At this appointment, you’ll meet with a Social Security doctor for an exam. Make sure you let the examiner know if you need help with transportation to the appointment. (Learn more about what happens at a consultative exam.)
New treatment records: it is likely you’ll continue attending appointments and tests, and you may even be hospitalized while waiting for a decision on your application. Submit any new records to the SSA as soon as possible after treatment is received.
If you need help, call your local field office or the SSA’s national number.
6. If you get rejected, call Atticus.
Again, don’t be discouraged if you get rejected at the initial application stage—most people do! You could still have a great case. Having a lawyer on your side is crucial for your appeal. We’re happy to match you with the right legal help.
Throughout the process, there are two important things to remember. First, if you’re confused, call the SSA and ask for help. Second, it’s okay if you get denied. Getting a denial is often a necessary first step before a professional can help you out. If you make a mistake, it can be fixed during your appeal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why does it matter how I fill out my application if I’m just going to get denied anyway?
Filling the application out incorrectly or submitting an incomplete application can cause delay or create issues when you try to appeal a rejected application. Most things can be corrected, but some can’t. The SSA can help you if you’re confused about the application or need help filling it out.
How long will this take?
Unfortunately, the process takes time. It can take 3-6 months to get an initial decision, and 1-2 years (or more) to get a hearing.
What benefits will I get?
If you qualify for SSI, you will get two benefits:
A monthly check (up to nearly $800 for one person, or almost $1,200 for a married couple, as well as dependent benefits, as applicable); certain states also make supplemental payments above the federal levels
Free health insurance through Medicaid
Why can’t a lawyer help me?
The SSA has rules about when a representative can and can’t help. Unfortunately, when you file your initial application, there’s very little a lawyer or representative can do for you. They can’t even be on the phone with you while you fill out it! That said, lawyers and representatives can play a much bigger role after your first denial. That’s why it’s important to call Atticus right away after you get denied.
Who else can I turn to for help?
The best people to ask for help are people who know you very well and can help you speak about your case. Your caseworker, social worker, or trusted loved one who can help you fill out the application are good choices. If you need access to a computer, your local library is a good resource.
But I’ve already applied and been denied; now what do I do?
You only have 65 days to appeal from the date of denial on your letter from SSA. If you’re within your appeal window, call us at 1-800-674-8141 right away so that you can keep your appeal going. If you’re outside that 65-day window, unfortunately you’ll need to apply again.
Where can I find more information?
Our advice center has tons of helpful information that covers any other questions you might have about applying for SSI. This article on how to get started is a great first step.
Sydney Hershenhorn is an attorney on Atticus’s Client Experience team. She‘s a licensed attorney, a graduate of New York Law School, and has counseled hundreds of people seeking disability benefits. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and spending time in nature.
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