How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits in California

How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits in California Featured Image

Before submitting an application for disability in California, it is important to understand first what Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is, along with the important differences between California State Disability and Social Security disability. Because SSDI is a federal benefit that is administered by a federal agency, the rules that apply to an application submitted in California are the same as an application filed in Florida.

SSDI in California: An Overview

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is a federal agency that administers the disability and retirement programs, paying over $1.5 trillion in benefits to millions of Americans every year. Currently, there are over 66 million people receiving benefits from the SSA. If you are not receiving Social Security benefits, you likely know a friend or family member who is. The disability program provides a critical lifeline to injured or disabled workers, helping to bridge the gap in income between the onset of a worker’s disability and their retirement years. For many disability beneficiaries, the monthly Social Security disability payment; it is their primary source of income. Because of the long wait times for appealing an unfavorable determination, an approval on an application for disability can mean the difference between foreclosure and staying in one’s home, solvency or going into debt, or having to dip into retirement savings.

Note that your SSDI disability payment is not based on a percentage of your prior salary; rather, it is based on a complex formula devised by the Social Security Administration . When the SSA approves an application, they base how much you’ll receive per month on your work history. As of January 2024, the average individual monthly disability payment is $1,537.03. Take note that there are no partial .disability benefit programs; your unique monthly disability amount is either approved 100% or denied. It’s useful to research your unique Social Security disability amount before filing your application. To do this, create your own username and password to your My SSA Account and review your earnings records and disability benefits estimator. This allows you to financially plan for your future and set expectations regarding living on a monthly disability payment amount that is typically more than your income from working. 

It’s also critical to note that SSDI is a different program than California State Disability Insurance (SDI). California State Disability Insurance is a short-term disability program that lasts for up to 12 months, while federal SSDI disability can last many years prior to your full retirement age. California SDI is funded through your payroll deductions as a worker in California, while Social Security disability is funded through your federal income taxes (FICA). If you did not work in a job that pays California taxes, you are ineligible for California State Disability Insurance. 

Can you receive Social Security disability and California State Disability Insurance at the same time in any given month? The short answer is yes. But you should be aware that the SSA limits the amount of income you can receive from workers’ compensation payments, SDI, and Social Security disability. According to SSA’s 80 percent rule, your combined income from SSDI and California SDI in any given month cannot exceed 80% of your gross monthly earnings in your highest earning year in the five years prior to the date you stopped working. If these payments exceed 80% of your average earnings in your highest earning year in the past five years, then SSA reduces your Social Security disability benefit until the combined total is at the 80% threshold. 

The application process for SSDI in California and for California SDI are entirely distinct. Regardless of where you live in California, you can apply for SSDI via the Social Security website. Meanwhile, to apply for California State Disability Insurance, you can file online at the EDD/SDI website.   

Preparing to Apply for SSDI in California

To increase your chances of getting your initial SSDI application approved, it helps to be well prepared at every step of the process. Here’s what you need to do when preparing to apply for SSDI in California.

Create your My SSA Account

First, familiarize yourself with the SSA website, which contains lots of useful information, including a list of documents you should prepare before submitting your application. Keep in mind that there are many scams associated with Social Security, including knockoff websites that appear official to the untrained eye, so make sure you are interacting with the official “.gov” website.

Next, create your own username and password to your My SSA Account and review your earnings records and the benefits estimator. This will help you set expectations regarding living on a monthly disability payment. 

Gather the necessary documentation

Compile and prepare important documents that assist with your case. In order to process your application, the Social Security Administration requires you to submit information about yourself, your work history (i.e., a list of any work you performed in the past 15 years), your education, the date you believe you became disabled from work, the list of impairments preventing you from working, the medications you are taking (including the dosages), and a list of the  physicians you have seen in the past 1.5 years and their contact information. 

Your list of impairments does not need to be exhaustive. You should only list the primary conditions you think are long term (lasting at least one year) and prevent you from working (impose work restrictions). The SSA has a 12-month rule that requires the disabling condition to last at least a year after you stop working. A short-term condition that has not lasted 12 months or is not expected to last more than 12 months should not be listed.

Consult with a disability lawyer

It cannot be overstated that every case is different, so you should consult a trained Social Security lawyer before filing an application. The lawyer will help you review your specific work and disability timeline, and discuss your past relevant work and your disability history, and your rights, including your right to appeal an unfavorable decision. They will also tell you what to expect in terms of local appeal wait times. This will help you prepare emotionally and financially for the disability application and appeals process, your disability lawyer will tell you what to expect if your initial application is denied.  

Also, your disability attorney will advise you about the optimal timing of a disability application. Although two-thirds of disability applications are denied by the SSA, it is important to set yourself up for the best possible chance for success at the initial stage. An approval on the application saves months and even years of waiting on appeals. 

Your attorney will also explain the duration rule, which says that a disability must last or be expected to last for at least 12 consecutive months in order to meet the SSA’s strict disability rules. By speaking with an attorney first before submitting an application, you can avoid a common mistake with disability applications: filing too early. 

Disability attorneys work on contingency, meaning if your case is not approved or does not result in a back payment, there are zero attorney’s fees. A disability attorney will also keep you apprised of the national average wait times on the application process and important deadlines for appealing unfavorable decisions. Review our blog article on what a disability attorney does for more information.

Complete the SSDI application

After you have prepared all of the relevant documents, a timeline of your disability, a list of the names and contact information of your doctors, a list of your medications, and consulted an attorney, the next step is to submit the application. You can do this either online, by mail, or in person.

When submitting an online application to the SSA, be on the lookout for the reentry number. The Social Security disability application process is long and can take over two hours to complete in one sitting. The reentry number that the SSA provides allows you to save your place on the application if you need to return to it at another date and time. Make sure to write the reentry number down or take a screenshot of it. 

And as with the reentry number, screenshot, print, or save the confirmation page after you have finished the online application. This serves as your receipt that proves the date of submission. In rare cases, the SSA may claim that an application was either lost or never received. If this happens to you, you can submit the screenshot or printout of the confirmation page as proof of filing, which can result in additional potential past-due benefits.

After you submit your application online, make sure to check your mail. The Social Security Administration will mail you a copy of your application summary so you can review it for mistakes and for your signature. You must sign and return the application summary in the envelope provided. Otherwise, the SSA will not process your applicationAlso, even if you electronically signed the medical authorization (SSA-827), the SSA may still enclose a copy of this form with your disability application summary. Make sure to sign and return this form as well.

After you send the signed copy of your SSDI application, call your local Social Security office 30 days later to make sure your application was received. Not receiving the signed copy of the application is one of the main reasons for delays in application processing. But by staying on top of your disability application, you ensure that the SSA has all of the necessary information to process your case. It’s also a good idea to set reminders to contact your local Social Security office from time to time to follow up on the progress of your case.

Unsure of the location of your local Social Security office? Use Social Security’s online Field Office Locator.

Prepare for a potential denial

Unfortunately, only one in three SSDI applications are approved at the initial level. The remaining two-thirds of disability applicants who are not approved at the initial level must file a request for reconsideration. This is the first stage in the appeals process for SSDI. 

If your application is denied, the Social Security Administration will mail you a Notice of Disapproved Claim. You have a right to file an appeal, called a Request for Reconsideration, within 60 days of the initial denial. You can file the request at your local Social Security office or online at the SSA website. Note that the 60-day deadline to file an appeal begins five days after the date on the Notice of Disapproved Claims. 

According to SSA studies, only 55% of applicants appeal initial denials. Of those applicants who appeal, over half (53%) are ultimately approved. Therefore, you should always contact your disability attorney. They will help you understand your appeal rights and the deadlines involved with the appeals process. 

Understand the waiting times

Applications for Social Security disability can involve lengthy wait times. Currently, the national average wait time for disability applications is seven months. Because the SSA contracts with state agencies called DDS (Disability Determination Services), wait times vary across states. In California, we experience wait times of 6–12 months to receive a decision on an initial application, although each case varies. 

Stay patient and persistent

Applying for Social Security disability can be emotionally draining. The entire process — from filling up and submitting paperwork to waiting for the result to filing an appeal, if needed — takes up a lot of time and takes a lot out of the applicant. It’s a good idea to seek support from friends, family, or support groups. Having someone you can lean on can help you navigate the process. If you ever feel depressed or anxious at any point during the application process, consider seeking the help of a trained mental health provider.

It would also help to not take the process personally. Take a step back and consider the system you’re dealing with. Applying for SSDI benefits entails an intensive evaluation process with a vast federal bureaucracy. Keep in mind that the SSDI program is administered by human beings who sometimes make mistakes, and who may be overworked. So although the process may seem impersonal and even punitive, know that the SSA is not trying to trick you, embarrass you, or make you feel bad about yourself. Their communications are often drafted to apply to many people in a wide variety of situations, not to you specifically as an individual.

And in the event that your SSDI application is denied, remember that you’re not alone — most applicants receive an unfavorable decision at the initial level. Plus, you always have the option to file an appeal; in many cases, mistakes made by the SSA adjudicators in their assessment of an application are ultimately confirmed by a favorable decision at the hearing level. 

California State Disability Insurance

If you’re planning to apply for California SDI, we’ve outlined a brief overview of California’s separate program for short-term disabilities to guide you.

Program overview

The California State Disability Insurance program provides cash benefits to California workers who are unable to work due to a short-term disability or non-work-related illness. Unlike SSDI benefits, which are funded through federal income taxes, California SDI is funded by California employee payroll taxes. The programs also have different eligibility criteria, appeals processes, and eligibility periods. California SDI is also administered by a separate entity, the California Employment Development Department (EDD).

Moreover, unlike SSDI, California SDI benefits typically last for up to one year at most; hence, the program is often referred to as California short-term disability.

It’s important to note that when the California state disability benefit is exhausted after 12 months and there are no funds left to disperse, you will receive a Notice of Exhaustion. This notice indicates that you have received the final payment from the state. 

You can use the exhaustion notice as your proof to the SSA that you are no longer receiving state disability payments, so make sure to keep it. If you did not keep a copy or if you lose it, log in to your SDI account to obtain one, and submit it together with your SSDI application. The SSA needs this information to process your award, if approved, due to the 80 percent rule discussed above. The 80 percent rule applies on a month-by-month basis; this means if your SSDI benefit is reduced because you’re also receiving SDI benefits, the reduction stops the month after SDI ends. 

Submitting your SDI exhaustion notice to the SSA helps avoid delays in payment due to missing public benefits information. If the exhaustion notice is not in your file, the SSA will mail you a public benefits questionnaire. Make sure to complete and submit this questionnaire so that the SSA can process and disburse your SSDI payment.

Eligibility

According to the EDD website, you must meet the following criteria in order to be eligible for state disability insurance: 

  • Be unable to do your regular or customary work for at least eight days.
  • Have lost wages because of your disability.
  • Be employed or actively looking for work at the time your disability begins.
  • Have earned at least $300, from which SDI deductions were withheld during your base period (learn more with Calculating Benefit Payment Amounts).
  • Be under the care and treatment of a licensed physician/practitioner or accredited religious practitioner within the first eight days of your disability. The date your claim begins can be adjusted if it does not meet this requirement. You must remain under care and treatment to continue receiving benefits.

Applying for SDI

To file a claim for California State Disability, file an application with the EDD. Complete and submit your Claim for Disability Insurance (DI) Benefits (DE 2501) either electronically on the EDD website or by mail.  

Make sure to complete and submit your Claim for Disability Insurance (DI) Benefits on time. You can file your claim on the first day of your disability, but to avoid creating delays on your claim, losing benefits, or having your claim disqualified, you should file your claim:

  • No earlier than nine days after your disability begins
  • No later than 49 days after your disability begins

If you have questions about California State Disability Insurance eligibility, consult a California SDI attorney like LaPorte Law Firm.

FAQs

The federal Social Security disability benefit program is viewed as a more challenging program due to the rigorous standard for proving disability, and due to the 12-month rule that requires the disability to have lasted or be expected to last 12 months after onset. With California State Disability Insurance, a claimant only needs to allege that they cannot perform the most recent job performed due to a disability. Further, California state disability does not have a requiring the disability to last for 12 months after work stoppage. 

If the SSA, after examining your medical records, finds that your medical condition meets the requirements of one of their disability listings, your cause will be approved. In general, a listing level impairment is viewed by the SSA as a steep burden of proof since the medical criteria usually requires strict objective medical findings in the treatment evidence. If they find that you meet one of the medical listings, they will approve your case.

However, if they do not find that your condition meets a medical listing, the analysis does not end. The SSA must then determine whether you can perform your past relevant work or other work given your medical impairments. If you prove that you cannot return to any of your past relevant work, the burden of proof shifts to the SSA to prove there are other jobs in the national economy that you can perform.

Yes. However, there are certain rules about how much money you can collect from SSDI and California state disability at the same time in any given month. See the discussion of the 80 percent rule above. 

It depends on which type of disability you are filing for in California. Regardless of where you live in California, you can apply for SSDI via the Social Security website. To apply for California State Disability, you can file online at the EDD/SDI website.

This depends on which program you applied for. An application for federal Social Security disability benefits can take seven  months on average or longer in California. Short-term California state disability applications are processed much more quickly, and can take effect within several weeks after your application.

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