Important: We updated this article in March 2023 with the most current and correct info available from the Social Security Administration. Getting approved for disability benefits isn’t easy, especially if your condition isn’t obviously bad or a terminal illness. But if your health makes you unable to work, you can apply for benefits through the federal SSDI program. (SSDI stands for Social Security disability insurance, which includes monthly checks as well as Medicare after 24 months.) Learning how the system works and disability secrets for getting your claim approved are crucial before you apply.
There are various approval rates for every step in the process which could potentially put your claim on hold. While these disability secrets cannot guarantee the Social Security Administration will approve your SSDI claim, they’ll definitely improve your chances!
8 Disability Secrets for Getting Your Claim Approved
Knowing how these disability secrets apply to your own claim can help you avoid any obstacles before filing your application with the SSA.
1. Ideally, you should have already been out of work for five months or more when you apply for SSDI.
If you work up until the day you submit your disability benefits application, the SSA will almost certainly reject it. That’s because you must prove that you cannot work directly as a result of your health problems to qualify for benefits. In some cases, you can show that it was difficult to work full-time because of your health. But spending five months unable to work for health reasons before you apply for disability seems to be the sweet spot. The SSA will also ask you:
- Whether your medical condition caused you to stop working at your previous job.
- If you had to reduce hours before leaving work altogether.
- Whether your employer had to provide special help in order for you to complete your routine job tasks.
If you have an especially complicated claim, ask a disability lawyer to review your application before you file. Lawyers often know disability secrets that apply to someone in your specific situation that you wouldn’t find anywhere online.
IMPORTANT: Did you have an unexpected accident or sudden illness? If a sudden health issue makes working obviously impossible on a temporary basis, you may be exempt from the five-month rule. (One good example the SSA has for this situation is ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.) The SSA will estimate how long your inability to work should last based on your medical diagnosis. If it’s one year or longer, you may still qualify for SSDI benefits.
2. A doctor must medically diagnose you with a condition expected to last at least 12 months or result in death.
Do not apply for benefits until your doctor confirms that your condition meets the SSA’s internal definition of “disabled.” Then, ask how long you can expect to be out of work before your health improves again, if at all. This is one of the more confusing disability secrets, since some people don’t qualify based on this alone. If your doctor says you’ll feel better within 8-12 months, the SSA won’t approve your claim.
3. Your health issue(s) must specifically make you unable to perform your usual job duties regularly for 40 hours a week.
This is one of the trickier disability secrets, since some jobs are easier to do than others with your current limitations. But if you can still perform the tasks listed in your job description, you likely won’t qualify for monthly benefits. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, your employer must provide “Reasonable Accommodation” for disabled employees.
One of the biggest disability secrets people ask about is, “How can I prove I cannot work during my DDS exam?” The answer is simple, actually! If you drop a pencil on the floor and cannot pick it up without help, then you’re disabled. And if you can’t walk across a room (or go up or down a few stairs) without assistance, you’re disabled. Finally, if you must alternate sitting and standing throughout the day or cannot lift anything heavier than 5 lbs., then you’re disabled. Of all disability secrets we know, this one may be the most valuable!
4. You must receive routine treatments for your disability from your doctor and submit documents that prove it along with your application.
One way the SSA determines your eligibility for benefits hinges on your credibility as an applicant. If you haven’t seen a doctor lately to treat your health issue(s) or discuss your symptoms, it looks bad to the SSA. If you don’t need routine treatments, the SSA automatically assumes your health isn’t slowing you down as much as you say it is. The more medical evidence from your doctor showing regular treatment appointments and progress notes, the higher your chances for approval. Among all disability secrets, this one’s likely to result in your technical denial if you can’t or won’t follow through. In other words, no doctor currently treating your health problems = no SSDI benefits. If you cannot afford to see a doctor, an attorney can pay for you to see one.
5. You must be younger than 67 and not currently getting any Social Security benefits in order to qualify for SSDI.
If you’re 67 or older when you apply, you’ll receive regular Social Security benefits for retired individuals instead of SSDI. Here’s one of the little-known disability secrets: You cannot receive SSDI and Social Security retirement checks at the same time. This means if you’re already drawing early retirement, the SSA will reject your disability claim.
6. You must already have 40 Social Security work credits and paid FICA payroll taxes for 5-10 years before you apply.
Insufficient work history is another one of those disability secrets that confuses many people who receive a technical denial letter. Look at it this way: If you can’t work for health reasons, you’re asking the SSA for early retirement but at your full pay amount. If you only worked four years in the last decade, that’s technically not enough credits to make you qualify. Or maybe you worked for 22 years, but didn’t pay into Social Security.
Here’s another example: You’re a federal employee whose government pension automatically prevents you from getting SSDI. Your SSDI amount is based on how long you worked as well as your highest job income (Average Indexed Monthly Earnings). In any given year, you can earn a maximum of four Social Security work credits. Plus, the amount you need to earn one work credit increases each year to keep pace with rising average wages. In 2023, you’ll get one Social Security work credit for every $1,640 you earn, according to the SSA.
7. Your monthly income must be less than $1,470 each month for you to qualify for SSDI.
Compared to our other disability secrets, this one may seem like a “gotcha!” that unfairly targets certain people. This technical eligibility rule excludes any SSDI applicants with incomes higher than the maximum monthly limit. In addition to money you earn from working, monthly earnings that may hurt your case include the following:
- Alimony checks
- Child support payments
- Trust-fund disbursements
- Interest or dividends paid on your investments
- Rental property income
The SSA looks closely at all your different income sources before they award you benefits. So if you get more than $1,470 each month (including unemployment), the SSA will deny your claim. The SSA does this to ensure only those who truly need financial assistance receive benefits.
8. If your spouse now gets SSDI, you can apply for spousal benefit payments — even if you’re divorced or widowed.
Spousal and dependent SSDI benefits aren’t exactly disability secrets, but they aren’t well-publicized, either. So how, exactly, do dependent benefits work? Let’s start with still-married couples. If your husband gets SSDI benefits now, as his wife, you can get a separate payment that equals up to 50% of his amount. Each of your children can get benefits, too. As a household, you can receive no more than 150% of the eligible family member’s benefit payment each month.
Divorced, but your former spouse gets SSDI? If your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren’t remarried, then you can apply for spousal SSDI benefits. You must also be old enough to qualify for spousal SSDI after divorce. If you’re disabled, you can get spousal SSDI starting at age 50. Otherwise, you need to be at least 62 years old when you apply unless you have a child younger than 16 years at home.
Now let’s talk about survivor benefits paid after someone on SSDI passes away. If someone dies while getting SSDI, any of the deceased’s dependents may qualify for those benefits going forward. (This includes children and other relatives in the same household listed as dependents on the former beneficiary’s income taxes.) The SSA usually reduces survivor benefits using a calculation based on the widowed spouse’s and any dependent children’s ages. Already turned 67? Then you can likely receive your deceased spouse’s full SSDI amount. To see how much you may qualify for, scroll down to page 6 in the SSA’s Survivor Benefits brochure.
There are additional disability secrets specifically regarding spouses, children and marital status. You can read more about those disability secrets by entering keywords like “family,” “marital” and “children” in the search box shown to the right of this article.
Get Expert Claim Help to Learn More Disability Secrets
Want to know more disability secrets that could help your case? Having a lawyer file your claim makes the SSA nearly 3x more likely to award you benefits. We can match you with a local Social Security attorney that knows disability secrets to help your case win. For example: There may be state-run programs you qualify for that pay cash benefits while the SSA reviews your application. Still, talking to a lawyer is the only way to learn which disability secrets may help you succeed.
All disability attorneys work on contingency. This means you’ll pay pay nothing for expert claim help now. Bottom line: Expert legal help will get you benefits or else your lawyer is free.
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Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.