How to Apply for SSI

Learn how to apply for SSI Disability and how much of the SSI application can be completed online and how much has to be filed by phone or in the office.

You Can Start Your Application Online

You can apply for SSI online if you are applying simultaneously for Social Security Disability (SSDI). To start an SSI application online, visit the Social Security Administration’s website ssa.gov. Click on the SSI tab and the website will give you step-by-step instructions on how to apply for SSI Disability.

You can start the application online by completing the online Disability Report for an Adult or the online Disability Report for a Child. However, you must make an appointment with the Social Security Administration—called the SSA for short—to complete the base SSI disability application form, unless you as an adult are filing an application for Social Security Disability at the same time.

Determining Your Eligibility

Ready to begin your application for benefits? Let’s get started! When you apply for SSI, you will need to provide proof that you are eligible, including the following:

• Your Social Security card or, at least, your Social Security number.

• Your birth certificate or other proof of age (e.g., driver’s license).

• Proof of U.S. citizenship or SSI-eligible non-citizen status.

• Information about your residence: address and phone number; mortgage document or rental lease with landlord’s contact information; proof of living arrangements with names, birth dates, and medical assistance or Social Security numbers for all household members; property tax bill; costs of utilities, food, etc. Information about your income: paycheck stubs, self-employment records, income tax return, bank statements, etc.

• Information about your resources: real estate, personal property, vehicles, insurance policies, cash, stocks, bonds, CDs, burial funds, money owed you, etc.

• Also, if disabled or blind: contact information for medical service providers.

If you don’t have all of these items, the SSA invites you to apply anyway. They may be able to help you obtain some of the information (e.g., copies of the tax forms you filed).

How to Apply for SSI in 3 Steps

Step 1: Fill out the SSI application, so the SSI can see if you meet the basic financial eligibility requirements and also evaluate any current work activities. Then your application is sent to the Disability Determination Services office in your state.

Step 2: DDS doctors and disability specialists ask your doctors for specific information about your disability. They will study the medical evidence from your doctors, hospitals, clinics and other facilities where you have been treated, to find out:

  • What your medical condition is, exactly.
  • When your medical condition began.
  • How it limits your past, current and future activities.
  • What your medical examinations and tests have shown.
  • What treatment you have received, and its effectiveness.

They will also ask for information about your ability to do work-related activities, such as walking, sitting, lifting, carrying and remembering instructions. Your doctors will not be asked to decide if you are disabled; that’s the job of the DDS. If more information is needed, the DDS may ask you to visit your doctor or one of theirs for a special examination, at SSA’s expense. After the investigation is completed, a disability determination is made by a two-person adjudicative team: a medical or psychological consultant and a disability examiner.

Step 3: When the DDS reaches a decision on your case, you will receive a letter from the SSA. If your application is approved, the local office will calculate your benefit amount and release payment and will send you the letter will show the amount of your monthly benefit and when your payments will begin. If your application is not approved, the letter will explain why and tell you how to appeal the decision if you do not agree with it.

Keep in mind that you may become eligible for SSI even you are not blind or disabled, as long as you meet the other criteria: age 65 or older, have few financial resources, earn less than the limit, and need financial assistance. 

Determining Disability

However, if blindness or disability is a factor, then the five-step disability determination process begins:

Step 1: Are you performing substantial gainful activity (SGA)? If you are working and being paid at the SGA level, you are not disabled as defined by Social Security law and your claim will be denied unless your work pay can be reduced to below SGA level by Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE’s), Blind Work Expenses, or the value of employer subsidy. In 2020, SGA is generally $1,260 gross wages or net profit from self-employment, although work hours and duties will also be evaluated in the case of self-employment. If you are blind, the earnings benchmark is $2,100.

Step 2: Is your physical or mental disability “severe”? If you are not working at SGA level earnings average the current limit or less, the DDS then looks at your medical condition. For the DDS to decide that you are disabled (whether for SSI or SSDI), your medical condition must significantly limit your ability to perform basic work activities—walking, sitting, remembering instructions, etc.—for at least the next 12 months. If your medical condition is not that severe, you are not considered disabled. However, if it is that severe, the determination process continues.

Step 3: Is your medical condition on the SSA’s List of Impairments? It lists medical conditions that are considered so severe, that if you have one or more it may automatically mean you are disabled as defined by law. The conditions for adults are listed under these 14 categories: 

  • Musculoskeletal System
  • Special Senses and Speech
  • Respiratory System
  • Cardiovascular System
  • Digestive System
  • Genitourinary Impairments
  • Hematological Disorders
  • Skin Disorders
  • Endocrine System
  • Impairments that Affect Multiple Body Systems
  • Neurological
  • Mental Disorders
  • Malignant Neoplastic Diseases
  • Immune System Disorders

The children’s list is the same, plus: Growth Impairment.

Since it may take months after approval for the first SSI payment to arrive, to speed initial payments to severely disabled persons the SSA recently expanded a list of 225 conditions that qualify for fast-track “Compassionate Allowances.” Among them are general or specific types of: Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, dementia, leukemia, muscular atrophy, muscular dystrophy, and various other diseases, tumors and syndromes affecting adults and/or children. For a current list, visit the SSA website at https://www.ssa.gov/compassionateallowances/conditions.htm.

Step 4: Can you do the work you did before? If your disability does not prevent you from continuing to work at your occupation, the DDS will decide that you’re not eligible for SSI. However, if your disability prevents you from performing that kind of work, then the DDS goes on to the final step.

Step 5: Can you do any other type of work, even with your physical or mental disability? The DDS or SSA evaluates your medical condition, age, education, work experience, skills, personality, location, etc., to try and find some other substantial gainful activity you could engage in. If they can, your application for SSI will be denied. However, if they cannot, your application will be approved. Either way, the DDS will return your case file to the SSA field office in your area for appropriate action.

If you are officially determined to be disabled, the SSA will compute your benefit amount so you can start receiving monthly payments. If you are found to be not disabled according to their definition, your file will be retained in the field office in case you decide to contest the determination.

4 Levels of Appeal When Denied SSI Benefits

Generally, there are four levels of appeal:

  1. Reconsideration (if still available in your state) is a complete review of your claim by someone other than the person(s) who took part in the initial decision. You need not be present. Your original application, the evidence presented with it, and any new evidence are all reviewed, to determine if a denial was the correct decision. If not, it’s reversed and your claim is approved. Or…
  2. If your denial is upheld after reconsideration, you can request a hearing. The hearing is conducted by an administrative law judge (ALJ) who did not take part in either the original decision or the reconsideration. To help prove your case, you may be asked to provide, in advance of the hearing, more evidence and/or clarification of specific information you provided. If possible, the hearing will take place within 75 miles of your home, or it may be a video conference. Either way, you can choose whether or not to attend, and you can invite witnesses (e.g., medical or vocational experts) and/or an attorney with SSI experience to appear with you or on your behalf. After the ALJ makes a decision, you will receive a letter from the SSA with full details.
  3. If the ALJ upholds the denial of SSI benefits, you may request a review by the SSA’s Appeals Council. After reviewing details presented at your hearing, the Council may deny your request for review if it believes the hearing decision is correct. Or, if it decides to review your case, it will either decide your case itself or return it to a different ALJ for further review. Either way, the services of an attorney with SSI and courtroom experience is highly recommended. Then the SSA will send you a letter stating the Council’s decision and the  reasons for it.
  4. If the Appeals Council decides not to review your case, or if the Council or an ALJ review it but your claim for SSI benefits is still denied, you have one more opportunity to contest the denial. You can file a lawsuit against the SSA in a federal      district court. It makes sense to be represented by an attorney with SSI experience and who is also qualified to represent clients in federal court.

Visit the SSA’s Understanding the Appeals Process: https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-appeals-ussi.htm

Information Needed to Complete an Adult SSI Disability Report

You will need the names, addresses, and phone numbers of all the medical providers who have evaluated or treated you for your disabling conditions and a list of your medications. You will also need the date you believe you became disabled and a list of the places you have worked in the past fifteen years. Be thinking about what your work duties were at each employer and the physical and mental requirements of the jobs because you will need to describe these on the report.

Information Needed to Complete a Child’s SSI Disability Report

If you are applying for a child, the online Child Disability Kit can be quite helpful in completing the Disability Report. The kit includes a worksheet that lists additional information needed for an SSI application for children. Some of the additional information needed for a child’s SSI application is a copy of any Individualized Family Service Plan or the Individualized Education Program Plan your child may have. The report will also ask for the names of your child’s school, school teacher, and school speech therapist or occupational therapist and information about school testing.

Information Needed to Finish Your SSI Application

When you have your appointment to finish applying for SSI, you will need to provide financial information about yourself and about a spouse you live with. In the case of a child applicant, you will be asked about the income and resources of the child’s parents and stepparents who live with the child and the child’s parent. This information is requested so that the SSA can determine whether your or your child’s countable income and countable resources are within the limits for SSI eligibility. Some of the income and some of the assets may be excluded from counting against the SSI limits, but it is important to declare all of them.

You will also need to provide information about your or your child’s living arrangements so that Social Security can determine whether you are in a living arrangement that allows SSI payment and whether you are receiving in-kind support and maintenance from persons in the household who are not your spouse or the child’s parent. 

Non-English Speakers and Conducting SSI Business

The Social Security Administration, known as SSA, is committed to making its programs accessible to everyone who is eligible including non-English speakers. The Administration will provide an interpreter free of charge upon request. Usually the interpreter, the non-English speaker, and the SSA employee converse in a three-way phone call. Interpretive services are available in many languages.

Sometimes the applicant wants to use a friend or family member as an interpreter. This is possible if the proposed interpreter is an adult and meets SSA’s guidelines and agree to the terms of interpretation. The interpreter must be able to read, write, and speak fluently in English and in applicant’s language or dialect; agree to provide an exact interpretation of both questions and responses and not initiate any communication or infer facts or dates not provided by the applicant or the SSA employee; agree to comply with confidentiality; have no personal stake in the outcome of the case; and demonstrate familiarly with basic terminology used in SSA’s materials and interviews. SSA typically does not accept an interpreter who is a minor.

Required Proofs

You are required to provide proof of your citizenship or alien status, your income, and the value of all your countable resources. You must also present proof the income and assets of any family members whose income and assets are considered in determining your eligibility. If you are a sponsored non-citizen, you need to provide documentation of your sponsor’s income and assets and of the income and assets of the sponsor’s spouse, if the spouse lives with the sponsor. Additional required proofs include proof of shelter and food costs where you live and of who pays those costs.

Applying for SSI Disability When You Are In a Public Institution

You are not eligible for SSI benefits when you are residing in a public institution such as a jail, a public hospital, or a nursing home where Medicaid is not paying for at least half of your care. However, you can file an advance application if you expect to be released from a public institution within a few months.

Under the pre-release procedures, you can complete an SSI application form and provide all the financial and medical information for your claim several months before you are released. SSA will process your claim as quickly as possible and tell you whether you qualify for SSI benefits once you are released from the public institution. If you receive an SSI approval, your benefits will start the first of the month after your release.

SSI and Foster Children

Disabled foster children are not eligible for SSI, but they may become eligible when they turn eighteen and are no longer supported by foster care payments. In order to ease a foster child’s financial transition into adulthood, SSI law allows foster children to apply for adult SSI benefits ninety days before their eighteenth birthday, following the instructions on how to apply for SSI disability for adults. This allows SSA time to evaluate the claim and have payment set up for the month after foster care support ends, assuming adult SSI disability qualifications are met.

SSI “Work Incentives” and How They Affect Your Benefits

If you receive Supplemental Security Income benefits because you have a disability, you may be interested in the programs offered by the SSA to disabled persons who would like to become financially independent…and still receive some or all of their disability benefits. These programs include the following…

You may be eligible for other benefits

Whether or not you are eligible for SSI, you may be able to get other types of financial assistance, via:

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly and commonly known as food stamps. (These days, debit cards often replace food stamps.)
  • Medicaid, to help pay doctor and hospital bills.
  • Medicare premiums, paid by your state (perhaps).
  • Medicare Rx program premiums, co-pays and annual deductibles.
  • Social Security retirement benefits, if you are 62 or older and have enough work credits (i.e., you’ve paid into the system long enough); your family members may also qualify.
  • Social Security disability benefits, if you qualify for SSDI

For full details on any of the above, please visit the SSA website: https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-other-ussi.htm

Although you can start your SSI application online, you do not have to. You can start your application by visiting a Social Security office or by calling 1-800-772-1213 for an appointment. Allow plenty of time for this call because it is likely that you will be on hold for a long time before reaching a representative.