The Social Security Disability Application Process, Visualized

Disability Benefits

Important: We updated this infographic and article with current program and statistical data in November 2023. The Social Security disability application process can be long and hard. Many people 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 in 6 months or less.

Social Security Disability Application Process: Infographic

Check out the infographic below to see how disability application process works. You can also see how having an attorney 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 disability attorneys work on contingency, they charge $0 unless you’re successful. Every lawyer in our network offers free phone calls to answer your disability claim questions. If you seek a lawyer’s help before starting the Social Security disability application process, here’s what to know:

  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 benefits or $7,200 — whichever is less. That motivates lawyers to get you as much money 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 disability benefits. That means they cannot charge more than $3,200, on average. But in 2023, most people paid no more than $2,500.
  2. A government report shows having a lawyer nearly triples your approval odds and helps shorten the disability application process. 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 disability 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 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 requirement is meeting the SSA’s definition of “disability.” You’re much more likely to get approved for SSDI or SSI if you meet all medical requirements. Here’s how the SSA defines whether or not you’re disabled:

  • Your medical condition must specifically make you unable to work in any job that pays enough to cover monthly expenses.
  • Your doctor says your medical condition will last at least 12 months or result in death.
  • You current receive regular treatment from one or more doctors who are acceptable medical sources for your health problems.

If this describes you, then you can feel confident starting the disability application process.

Step 2 in the Disability Application Process: Filing Your Claim Paperwork

You can choose to file your disability application in 4 different ways:

  • Electronically online at the SSA website.
  • Over the phone by calling the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 Monday through Frida during regular business hours.
  • In person at a local Social Security office.
  • With expert help from a local attorney who’ll charge you $0 to submit your disability paperwork.

Technical Eligibility Requirements the SSA Looks for During Your Disability Application Review

Medical conditions aren’t the only thing the SSA looks at when they review your disability application. You also must meet the following requirements that have nothing to do with your health:

  • You’re not currently drawing any other Social Security benefits each month. This includes things like early retirement, regular retirement, spousal, or survivor benefits.
  • You worked recently and enough years in jobs where you paid FICA payroll taxes. If you’re aged 30-66, this means you worked at least 5 in the last 10 years and have 40 work credits. Once you stop working for 5 years, you’re no longer eligible for SSD benefits under federal law.

How to Start the Disability Application Process at a Local Social Security Office

Want to start the disability application process in person? We suggest you make an appointment at your nearest Social Security office location. Expect to spend at least 4-6 hours completing the disability application process, and only if you come with all required documentation:

  • Your Social Security number and photo ID or your original birth certificate
  • Employment history
  • Medical evidence that supports your disability claim
  • Banking information
  • Current contact information
  • Birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, military service records, etc.

Whichever way you choose to file, you’ll need the same forms, medical records, and documentation. The more medical proof you can provide at once, the better your chances for getting monthly benefits.

Important: It’s impossible to get a paper copy of all the 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 disability benefits. You must complete and submit at least three different forms, and they’re close to 30 pages total. Leaving any fields blank guarantees the SSA will reject your disability application.

Step 3 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 office. Experts working under SSA guidance examine your case and decide whether to approve or deny your claim. According to the SSA, you’ll wait about 3-5 months before you hear a decision. This is because of how long it takes to evaluate your disability application. However, wait times vary. Submitting complete medical records and any additional proof you’re disabled may make your review go faster.

If approved, the SSA will mail an award letter to the address you listed on your disability application. This letter should explain when they’ll deposit your first payment and your disability benefit amount.

IMPORTANT: Your SSA disability benefits also include Medicare or Medicaid coverage. Learn more about which program covers your health care costs and when they begin.

Step 4 in the Disability Application Process: Appealing Your Denial

Denied disability benefits? You can appeal that disability determination decision in writing within 60 days. This is when many people contact an attorney. In fact, the SSA denies 2 in every 5 people who file for making basic disability application mistakes.

You can learn more about the appeals process here, including how long it usually takes and your chances for getting approved.

How to Get Free Expert Help Qualifying for Disability Benefits

You have the right to legal assistance during the Social Security disability application process. A lawyer can make it faster and easier. Disability lawyers will not accept your case unless they believe you’re owed benefits.

While not everyone needs a lawyer to get disability benefits, most people do. If you already applied once and got denied, you likely need a lawyer to win benefits on appeal. Since they all work on contingency, you owe $0 unless you win. And if you win, then you’ll only pay one small fee.

Why not sign up for a free phone call and get expert claim help today? An attorney can determine if you’re eligible for benefits before you start the disability application process.

Click the button below to start your free online benefits quiz and connect with free expert claim help by phone:

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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.