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The best way to know for sure if you’ll qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments is to apply and wait for a definitive answer.
But before doing that, it’s natural to wonder whether you have a good chance of getting approved. Applying for coverage is time-consuming and requires sharing extensive medical records and other paperwork. It usually takes three to five months to get a decision, and approval isn’t assured; the Social Security Administration (SSA) denies the majority of disability claims.
While these signs offer no guarantee, they’re good indicators that you could qualify for benefits.
Social Security Disability Insurance is not the same as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is another federal program that makes monthly payments to people with disabilities based on financial need. SSI also provides monthly cash payments for children (considered those under 18 years of age) who have certain physical or mental disabilities, or who are blind. The SSA has a Benefits Eligibility Screening Tool to help you determine which program is better for you based on your criteria.
1. You're unable to work
The Social Security Disability Insurance program defines a qualifying disability as one that creates “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Substantial gainful activity, in this context, means being able to do paid work that exceeds a certain monthly threshold.
In practice, that means that getting your disability claim approved depends heavily on providing documentation that your disability has kept you from working. Being specific about your limitations, job duties and work experience can help your case. For example, maybe you're unable to lift a certain amount of weight and you've worked in a job that requires lifting heavy objects for most of your career.
When assessing your inability to work, Social Security looks at your past work it deems relevant, defined as work you’ve done in the past 15 years before your claim is decided. It also assesses whether you can do any other type of work. Generally, if you’re under 50, the SSA deems it more likely that you can adjust to other types of work, which can make it more difficult to get approved for disability.
2. You have plenty of supporting documentation for your disability
When you apply for disability, the SSA asks you to supply medical evidence of your disability, such as medical records, doctors’ reports and recent test results. Supporting documentation can help strengthen your case and increase your chances of getting your claim approved.
The SSA supplies a full list of qualifying medical criteria for adults, plus documentation you’ll need for each. Common disabilities include cancer, cardiovascular system disorders and neurological disorders.
Before filing a disability claim, it’s best to talk to your doctor and make sure they’re willing to help you pursue a claim. If you lack the necessary medical documentation and your doctor disagrees with your claim, getting approved for benefits can be extremely difficult.
In addition to completing Social Security forms about your physical or mental limitations, doctors can also supply letters of recommendation, sometimes called doctor disability letters. These letters can include crucial context, such as more information about your limitations and potential future outcomes, which can help get your claim approved.
3. You've been in the workforce long enough
To qualify for Social Security disability, adults generally need a work history of at least 10 years — or in government terms — 40 work credits. You earn one credit for each quarter of qualifying work completed. Five of those years (or 10 credits) need to be in the last 10 years, ending the year your disability started. But if you’re young and become disabled, you may need fewer credits, both for recent work and overall, to qualify.
Check how many credits you’ve earned by logging into your Social Security account. If you don’t have an account online with the SSA, you can create one.
You’ll need to have paid into Social Security in order to qualify for disability benefits. Generally, if you’ve paid income taxes — which are usually withheld from paychecks — your work history will count toward the number of credits needed. But if you’ve worked under-the-table jobs that you didn’t pay taxes on, or did unpaid labor, such as caregiving for family, that work history won't count toward credits.
For help, consult a disability lawyer
Hiring a disability lawyer is a good way to improve your chances of getting your claim approved. An experienced lawyer can help you gather all the documentation needed to make a robust case. And if your claim is denied, an attorney can also guide you through the appeals process.
Disability lawyers work on a contingency fee, meaning they only get paid if you win your claim. Fees can’t exceed 25% of past-due benefits or $7,200, whichever is less. When looking for a lawyer, it's a good idea to find someone with experience dealing with disability claims, a high rate of successful outcomes and a helpful support staff.
Claire Tsosie, an assigning editor, contributed to this article.