A disability insurance policy ensures that you have money coming in even if an illness or injury keeps you from working, so you can protect your financial goals and assets until you recover and can start working again.
Once you decide whether you want short-term, long-term, or Social Security disability insurance, applying for a policy is straightforward. Here’s how to figure out what kind of coverage you need and what to expect from the application process.
How to get private disability insurance
A private disability insurance policy is the most reliable form of income protection, since employer- and government-supplied coverage come with limitations that can make it difficult to qualify for benefits. Follow the steps below to get a policy.
1. Decide which type of policy to buy
There are two main types of private disability insurance:
Long-term disability insurance is best for most people. Both types of coverage typically replace up to 60% of your income and cost approximately 1% to 3% of your pre-tax salary.
But, short-term coverage only lasts up to one year, whereas long-term coverage can last up to retirement age. Because short-term policies can begin paying benefits sooner (seven days vs. 30 days), people should have both types for more comprehensive coverage.
Make sure you understand how your policy interacts with any existing coverage or workplace protections you have, such as workers' compensation or family medical leave.
2. Calculate how much coverage you need
Coverage refers to a few factors in a disability insurance policy. Before you buy, get a sense of what you need in each category:
Benefit amount: This is how much your policy pays out every month. Most people should aim for 60% of their pre-tax earnings. Since disability benefits usually aren’t taxed, this should keep you close to your usual income level. If you plan to supplement your benefit payments with your savings, lower your benefit amount.
Benefit period: This is how long your benefits last. The average disability lasts two to three years, so most people should have a minimum five-year benefit period.  A benefit period that lasts until retirement offers the most protection, but is also the most expensive option.
Elimination period: This is how long a disability must keep you out of work before you’ll receive benefits from a claim. You’ll get lower premiums with a longer elimination period. A 90-day elimination period is best for most people.
The factors above, as well as your health and age, affect your rates, determine how much you pay for your policy. You'll want to choose coverage that falls into your budget, while accounting for coverage you already have from a workplace disability policy.
3. Consider optional policy add-ons
Your insurance company may offer optional policy features, called riders, that allow you to customize your coverage. Some riders come standard at no additional cost, while others will increase your monthly premiums.
Common standard riders include:
Automatic increase benefit: Allows you to increase your monthly benefit annually for a limited period, to mimic pay increases.
Guaranteed renewable: Means that your insurer can’t cancel your policy as long as you keep up with premium payments.
Waiver of premium: Waives your premiums if you become disabled and can’t work.
Popular riders include:
Future purchase option: Allows you to increase your coverage at any point in the future, regardless of any changes in your health.
Non-cancelable: Means that your insurer can’t cancel your policy, increase your premiums, or change your benefits as long as you keep paying your premiums.
Own-occupation: Makes it easier to qualify for benefits—you’ll qualify if you can’t perform the duties of your occupation, as opposed to the duties of any occupation.
Residual or partial disability benefit: Pays a benefit if you’re still able to work in your own occupation while disabled, but are losing some income due to reduced hours or productivity.
Not all riders are offered by every insurance provider, and some are only worth adding in specific scenarios. For example, a Social Security offset (complements Social Security disability insurance) and a cost-of-living adjustment (increases monthly benefit to keep up with cost of living) can be useful for some people, but are best avoided by most because of limited usefulness or high costs.
4. Compare quotes
Not every insurer offers the same prices for coverage, and each provider has its own rules for setting policy premiums. Get quotes from more than one company — they’re free — to make sure you’re getting the best policy at the most affordable price.
An independent insurance broker, like Policygenius, can help you find an insurer that will offer you the most affordable coverage for your background.
5. Fill out an application
After you’ve decided on a disability policy and company, you can submit an application. A disability insurance application requires basic personal, financial, and health information, including:
6. Have a phone interview with the insurance company
After submitting your application, you’ll have a short phone call with the insurer. The interview will involve more in-depth medical questions and questions about your occupational duties.
This gives the provider a better understanding of your risk of injury or illness and any pre-existing conditions you have, which could be excluded from coverage.
7. Go through the underwriting process
The underwriting process tells the insurer how risky you are to insure. There are three main steps in the disability underwriting process:
A medical exam to verify your health information. This exam is similar to a standard physical. The insurance company will schedule a time to take the exam and can send a technician to your home or office for your convenience.
Income verification through pay stubs or the previous year’s tax returns to make sure the amount of protection you’re applying for is appropriate.
An attending physician’s statement (APS) request, which is a statement of your health history from your doctor’s point of view.
Some insurance companies offer simplified underwriting which waives the medical exam and income verification requirements, speeding up the approval process considerably. However, these policies often come with age or coverage restrictions.
8. Sign your policy
After underwriting, which can take four to six weeks, the insurance company will issue you a policy. All you have to do to is sign and return a copy and make your first premium payment.
Be sure to read the policy before signing it. It will usually be issued as-applied — meaning the premiums and benefits match your initial quote — but the premium may be higher or lower based on the results of the underwriting process. The insurer or your agent can explain any changes.
How to get Social Security disability insurance
Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a benefit provided by the government, so it’s not something you have to buy. But you do have to apply for SSDI, and it’s much more difficult to qualify for than other types of disability insurance. Here’s how to apply:
1. Gather necessary information and documents
Speed up your application process by gathering personal information such as:
Financial documentation like bank account details, paystubs, and tax returns
Medical details, including records and any doctors or clinics you see regularly
Occupational information, including your income and benefits plan
Proof of citizenship and Social Security number
2. Apply for benefits
You can apply online or by calling the Social Security Administration (SSA). The online application requires you to create an account with the SSA and can take one to two hours to complete.
3. Wait for approval
After you apply for SSDI benefits, the SSA may contact you for additional information. It can take three to five months for the SSA to process your claim.
Many people are denied because the definition of disability is much more strict than that of private insurance: your disability must prevent you from taking on any employment and have lasted or be expected to last at least 12 months or result in death.  You can appeal the SSA’s decision, but appeals can also take several months.
Because qualifying for SSDI is difficult, and because SSDI benefits are lacking compared to private disability policies, most people shouldn’t rely on it for income protection.
How to get employer-sponsored group disability insurance
Many companies offer short- and/or long-term disability insurance as part of employee benefits packages. Like other benefits, you can sign up during open enrollment periods. Depending on your employer, your company may subsidize some or all of your premiums.
Group disability policies are an affordable way to get some disability coverage, but there are caveats:
If your employer covers part of your premiums, your benefit payments may be partially or fully taxable.
The types or amount of coverage you can buy may not provide all of the protection you need.
You usually aren’t able to keep your policy when you leave your job.
Unless you wouldn’t qualify for private disability insurance, it’s best to use group coverage to supplement a private policy.
No matter which type of disability insurance you buy, the process for securing coverage is relatively simple. Get a sense of how much coverage you need and the policy benefits that matter to you before you shop, and compare quotes to ensure you get the right policy at the best price.