Social Security Disability Application Process, Visualized

The Social Security Disability Application Process, Visualized

Important: We updated this infographic and article with current program and statistical data in May 2022. The Social Security disability application process can be long and hard. Many applicants who need benefits give up after years of trying. What they don’t know is that a Social Security attorney can almost triple their chances for approval right away.

Social Security Disability Application Process: Infographic

Check out the infographic below to see how the Social Security disability application process works. You can also see how getting legal assistance impacts SSD claim approval rates, on average:

How Much Do Lawyers Charge to Handle Disability Claims?

Many people wrongly believe they cannot afford a lawyer. Since Social Security attorneys work on contingency, they charge $0 for legal assistance if your claim’s denied. Every lawyer in our network offers free phone calls to answer your claim questions for free. If you seek a lawyer’s help before starting the Social Security disability application process, here’s what to expect:

  1. They can only deduct legal fees from your lump-sum back pay, so it’s a one-time payment. Federal law limits this amount to 25% of your back-pay or $7,200 — whichever is less. That motivates lawyers to get you as much back pay as possible. Lawyers working with can get SSD claimants like you a lump-sum award of $13,200 in back pay, on average, in addition to monthly benefits. That means they cannot charge more than $3,200, on average. But in most cases, it’s less than that.
  2. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows having a lawyer file your application nearly triples your benefit approval odds. The SSA reviews every claim for eligibility under the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. That’s because if you’re not eligible for one program’s benefits, you may qualify for the other. This recent GAO report shows you’re 2.9x more likely to get approved if a lawyer files your claim.

Most people think they’re better off applying on their own just to see what happens. But since just 2.3% of applicants get benefits on their first try without legal assistance, is it really worth it? Reconsideration is the first step in appealing a denied claim. However, just 2% of claimants get benefits at that stage in the Social Security disability application process. Appealing your first denial adds another 147 days to the Social Security disability application process, on average!

Step 1 in the Social Security Disability Application Process: Are You Eligible?

Before you start the Social Security disability application process, it’s important to know whether you qualify. The first eligibility requirement is meeting the SSA’s definition of “disability.” You’re much more likely to get approved either for SSDI or SSI if you meet the SSA’s medical requirements. Here’s how the SSA defines whether or not you’re disabled:

  • Your condition(s) must specifically force you to stop working in any job that pays enough to cover monthly expenses
  • Your doctor says your health problems will last at least 12 months or result in death

If this describes your current medical problem(s), then you can feel confident starting the Social Security disability application process. You can choose to file online, over the phone, or in person at a local Social Security office. However, to apply in person, most offices require you to make an appointment first. Expect to spend at least 4-6 hours filling out your paperwork, and only if you come with all required documents.

Whichever way you choose to apply, you’ll need the same forms, medical records, and documentation to support your claim. The more evidence you can provide at once, the better your chances for securing monthly benefits.

Important: It’s impossible to get a paper copy of all the claim forms to take home and finish yourself. No SSA office or website allows you to print or download the forms you’ll need to apply for benefits. You must complete at least three different forms, and they’re close to 30 pages total. Leaving any fields blank guarantees the SSA will reject your paperwork.

Step 2 in the Social Security Disability Application Process: What Happens After You File?

After filing your claim, the SSA sends a copy to your state’s Disability Determination Services (DDS) office. Experts working under SSA guidance examine your case and decide whether to approve or deny your claim. According to the SSA, you’ll typically wait 3-5 months to hear a decision. However, wait times vary on a case-by-case basis. Submitting thorough medical records and any additional proof you’re disabled may make your review go faster.

If approved, the SSA mails you an award letter. This letter explains when they’ll deposit your first payment and your disability benefit amount. Denied benefits? You can appeal that decision in writing within 60 days. This is when many people contact an attorney. In fact, the SSA denies 2 in every 5 first-time applicants for mistakes they made on their claim forms.

You have the right to legal assistance at any time during the Social Security disability application process. A lawyer can not only make the process faster and easier for you, it’s also less stressful. Disability lawyers will not accept you as a client unless they believe you qualify for monthly benefits.

While not everyone needs a lawyer to get disability benefits, most people do. If you already applied once and got turned down, you likely need a lawyer to win benefits on appeal. Since they all work on contingency, you owe $0 in legal fees unless you win. And if you do win, then you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee. Why not sign up for a free phone call and get claim help without leaving your house today?

Click the button below to start your free online benefits evaluation and connect with expert claim help now!

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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, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity,, 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.