Savvy Senior

Dear Savvy Senior,
What do I need to do to get Social Security disability? I’m 58 years old and have back problems that are keeping me from doing my job, but I’ve heard it’s very difficult to actually get disability benefits. What tips can you offer?
Disabled Dave

Dear Dave,
The process of getting Social Security disability benefits can be tricky and time-consuming, but you can help yourself by doing some homework and getting prepared. Here’s what you should know.
Last year, around 3 million people applied for Social Security disability benefits, but two-thirds of them were denied. Why the high denial rate? Because most applicants fail to provide sufficient medical evidence that prove they’re disabled and can’t work. While there are no magic tips to getting Social Security disability, there are several steps you can take to give yourself a better chance for a favorable decision.
Get Informed
Your first step is to know if your disability meets Uncle Sam’s criteria. Social Security strictly requires that you must be physically or mentally unable to perform “any” substantial work and have a medical condition that’s lasted or is expected to last at least a year or result in death. You must also have worked five out of the last 10 years and be under full retirement age. For more details, see and go through the five questions Social Security uses to decide if you’re disabled.
If you think you qualify, your next step is to learn all you can about how the program works. Your best resource is – click on “Disability.” Or, if you don’t have Internet access, Social Security offers lots of free publications that you can have mailed to you including “Disability Benefits” (publication No. 05-10029) which provides a good comprehensive overview. Call 800-772-1213 to order publications.
Get Prepared
After you bone up, your next step is to gather up your personal, financial and medical information so you can be prepared and organized for the application process. You’ll need your Social Security number; birth certificate; names, addresses and phone numbers of the doctors, hospitals and clinics that took care of you and dates of your visits; names and dosage of all the medicine you take; medical records from your doctors, therapists, hospitals and clinics; lab and test results; documents stating your physician’s objective view of your condition, restrictions and limitations; a summary of where you worked and the kind of work you did; and a copy of your most recent W-2 Form or, if you are self-employed, your federal tax return for the past year.
How to Apply
After you get your information together, you can apply either online at, or call 800-772-1213 to make an appointment to apply at your local Social Security office or to set up an appointment for someone to take your claim over the phone. The whole process lasts about an hour. If you schedule an appointment, a “Disability Starter Kit” that will help you get ready for your interview will be mailed to you. If you apply online, the kit is available at
Be Patient
It takes three to five months from the initial application to receive either an award or initial denial of disability benefits. The only exception is if you have a chronic illness that qualifies you for a “compassionate allowance,” (see which fast-tracks cases within 10 days.
Be Persistent
If Social Security denies your application for disability, you can request a hearing to appeal the decision, and you’ll be happy to know that roughly 55 percent of cases that go through a round or two of appeals end with benefits being awarded. But the bad news is, with backlog of over 700,000 people currently waiting for a hearing, it will take a year or two for you to get one.
Get Help
If you are having trouble getting your applications in order or need help with your appeal, consider getting an attorney or a Social Security disability claims services company to represent you. A representative can only charge you if they’re successful in getting you benefits. If they do succeed, typical fees are 25 percent of past-due benefits or $6,000, whichever is less.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.


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