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Social Security Disability Overview

Social Security Disability benefits are provided by the Social Security Administration (an agency of the Federal Government) to people who cannot work due to a severe medical condition which results in a disability that is expected to last at least one year.  Social Security Disability benefits are only provided to people who meet a very strict definition of disability.  A "disability" is defined as not being able to engage in any "substantial gainful activity because of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that is expected to result in death or that has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months."  There is a separate definition of disability for children under the age of 18 years.

If you feel you might qualify for Social Security Disability benefits you can apply one of two ways.  You can apply online at or you can call the Social Security office (1-800-772-1213) to make an appointment to file a disability claim at a local Social Security office.  To streamline your application process you should have the following information with you:  

  • Your social security number
  • Your birth certificate
  • Names, addresses and phone numbers of the doctors, hospitals and clinics that cared for your condition as well as your dates of treatment
  • Medical records that you have in your possession
  • A summary of your work history
  • A copy of your most recent W-2 Form (Wage and Tax Statement) or if self-employed your federal tax return for the past year

Once your application is submitted the Social Security Administration will determine if you have worked enough years under Social Security at the time you became allegedly disabled to apply for benefits.  If you meet these "Recent Work" and "Duration of Work" tests the application will then be sent to the Disability Determination Services for a decision.  They will look at medical evidence in your medical records to determine if you meet the definition of "disabled" and thus eligible to receive benefits.  The agency uses a five step process to decide if you are disabled.  This five step process consists of the following line of inquiry:  (1) Are you working? (2) Is your medical condition "severe"? (3) Is your medical condition on the List of Impairments? (4) Can you do the work you did before? and lastly, (5) Can you do any other type of work? 

Naturally, if you are working and your wages are above a certain level you will be ineligible for benefits.  Additionally, if you medical condition will only limit your ability to work for less than one year, you will be ineligible.  

If you are denied benefits you can appeal this decision.  You have the right to be represented by an attorney during this appeal process.  Do not delay if you wish to file an appeal because there is a strict deadline, usually 60 days from the receipt of the unfavorable decision.

There is a wealth of information on the Social Security Administration webpage at  The Social Security Administration can also be reached toll free at 1-800-772-1213.

Sources:  Social Security Disability Benefits, SSA Publication No. 05-10029,

2014 Red Book, Social Security Administration,

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