Navigating the Path to Social Security Disability Benefits: A Quick Guide

Stressed about the Social Security benefits application process? That’s normal. We work with thousands of Social Security Disability applicants across the U.S. every day, and we understand how isolating and overwhelming it can be to live with a disability. Navigating the complex world of disability benefits alone doesn’t make things any easier.

Whether you’re applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), getting the benefits you deserve requires proving your disability to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Unfortunately, that’s not always an easy process. Many of our clients come to us feeling lost and need help figuring out where to start. They juggle daily health issues while struggling to work and make ends meet. There is hardly any time or energy left to prove a disability to a government organization.

This is why we’ve written a quick guide to empower you, the SSD applicant, with the knowledge and resources needed to confidently move forward in the application process. This article outlines what’s ahead so that you can make the most of your efforts to receive disability benefits. By the end, you’ll have a clear picture of what it takes to overcome common challenges in the SSD application process. The end goal? Getting you access to the financial support you deserve and the freedom to focus on your wellbeing. Read on to get answers to many of the questions you’re probably asking, as well as some important ones that you may not have known to ask.

Do I qualify for Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI and/or SSI)?

Qualifying for Social Security disability benefits goes beyond simply having a disability. You must also prove to the Social Security Administration (SSA) that you are eligible and that your disability prevents you from working. When you submit a claim, the SSA may consider:

  • The amount of money you currently make.
  • Other benefits or financial support you receive from other sources;
  • The financial resources you have on hand (like money in a bank account);
  • The severity of your disability.
  • Your work history (for SSDI claims);
  • Your medical documents;
  • Your age.
  • Your ability to work at your current job or another job

How does my income affect my eligibility for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Income Limits for SSDI Applicants

Are you applying for SSDI? Before giving you benefits, the SSA will want to know how much you’re currently earning. Depending on the amount you make, you may be considered to have “substantial gainful activity,” or SGA. Put simply, if you earn over the SGA limit, you will not be eligible for SSDI benefits.

  • In 2024, the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) limit for an individual is $1,550/month.

Income Limits for SSI Applicants

Applying for SSI? The Social Security will want to know how much you are earning through work or receiving from other sources (like other benefits programs). They will also look at your current assets (things you own or have).

Not all income or assets “count” towards this limit. On the other hand, some things you might not think of can count. If you are over the SSI income limit, you will not be eligible for SSI benefits.

  • In 2024, the SSI income limit for a single person is around $1,900/month.

How much money will I get per month in Social Security benefits? Maximum monthly SSDI payments

Monthly SSDI payments can vary quite a bit. One important factor is the earnings you had before becoming disabled. These are your “covered earnings.” The more you earned, the more you are eligible for (up to a point).

  • In 2024, the maximum SSDI payment for a single person is about $3800/month.

Maximum monthly SSI benefits

Most people getting monthly SSI payments receive the standard Federal Benefit Rate. This amount may be reduced if you are earning income, although not all income is counted.

  • In 2024, the SSI Federal Benefit Rate (the maximum payment SSI recipients will receive) is $943 / month for individuals and $1415 / month for couples.

You may also receive back pay (sometimes called “Retro benefits” or “Past due benefits”) after being approved for ongoing benefits. The amounts vary according to the type of benefits, the date the disability began, and when the application was filed. Learn more about back pay for SSDI and SSI in The Beginner’s Guide to Disability Benefits.

How do I show that my disability prevents me from working?

You must show that you have a disability and that it is severe. The SSA recognizes various categories of disabilities, broadly classified as physical or mental. Reviewing the SSA’s impairment listings can help you

understand the requirements for your specific disability. You will also need medical evidence and professional opinions that can strengthen the case. Our team of experienced advocates can guide you through this process and ensure you have the necessary documentation.

How does the SSA assess my disability?

The SSA assesses your claim by reviewing all the medical evidence and opinions you provide. If this information is insufficient, they may request a Consultative Exam. This exam ensures the SSA has a complete picture of your condition. We can help you navigate this process and connect you with the right healthcare providers. To learn more about the Consultative Exam, visit The Beginner’s Guide to Disability Benefits.

The SSA specifically looks for:

  • Medical opinions from licensed physicians: Opinions from nurses or physician assistants hold less weight.
  • Proof of your impairment: This is the medical evidence of your disability. It may include X-rays, MRIs, or other diagnostic tests.
  • Compliance with prescribed treatment: Show that you’re following the doctor’s orders. Keeping to your treatment plan strengthens your case.
  • A medical source statement: This document details your ability to perform work-related functions, such as lifting, sitting, or standing.
  • Your Residual Functional Capacity (RFC): Your RFC is an assessment of your ability to perform work despite your disability. Our team can provide you with an RFC assessment form to be completed by your doctor. Having a strong RFC assessment significantly improves your chances of approval.

Throughout the application process, various doctors will assess your RFC. Getting an opinion from a doctor who knows you well is crucial, as their insights hold more weight, especially in appeals.

Who decides my Disability Claim?

The Disability Determination Services (DDS) agency makes the initial decision on your claim. Once your disability is established, the SSA considers factors like age, education, and work skills to determine your eligibility for benefits based on a specific set of rules, also known as the “Grid” rules.

“Grid” rules can work in your favor, especially if you are over 50 and have a work history that is mostly manual or physical labor. After all, it can be challenging to switch careers at this age or learn new skills. You may also benefit from Grid rules if you only possess a high school degree or if you have a disability that prevents you from using your existing skills.

Trajector Disability team members can help you navigate this complex system and understand how these factors might influence your claim.

What do I need to apply for SSD?

To be considered for Social Security Disability Benefits, you’ll need to gather and submit the following documents:

  • Social Security card or proof of your Social Security number
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizen status
  • Proof of age (birth certificate)
  • Proof of residency (lease agreement, utility bills, etc.)
  • Detailed income and asset information (pay stubs, bank statements, etc.)
  • Medical records and details related to your disability (doctor contact information, diagnoses, etc.)

Don’t worry–we can help you gather and organize all the documents needed for a disability claim. And if you are missing any of the items listed above, we can assist you in obtaining them!

How long does the average claim take?

The time it takes to process a claim for Social Security benefits can vary significantly, ranging from a few months to several years. The process typically involves multiple stages, each with its own specific timeline. (Note that timelines can vary depending on the state you live in.)

After sending the initial claim to the District Office determination services, it usually takes about seven to 12 months for the SSA to make a decision. If the claim is denied, which is common, an appeal must be submitted within 60 days, or about two months. From there, it can take an additional six to seven months for the SSA to reconsider your case.

If you are denied again, you may request a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Once again, you’ll have 60 days to do so. You may have to wait about a year for your hearing, but the success rate here is higher than at any other stage. If your ALJ hearing is unsuccessful, you may submit your case to the appeals council. Alternatively, you can choose to start a new case.

Our team can guide you through each step of the process and manage communication with the SSA on your behalf.

What are the chances my claim will be approved?

The short answer is one you’ve probably heard before: it depends.

Approval rates vary depending on several factors, including your location, the specific ALJ assigned to your case, and the strength of your medical evidence. While the initial denial rate is high, having a team of experienced advocates by your side can significantly increase your chances of success.

We can help you strengthen your case by:

  • Ensuring you have all the required documentation.
  • Gathering and organizing complete medical evidence.
  • Connecting you with the right resources to assess your eligibility.
  • Obtaining strong and accurate medical opinions
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