I am 57, single and applying for Social Security disability. Any suggestions?

Here are 10 tips that can help anyone applying for disability.

1. Know which SSA disability program(s) you qualify for. Have you worked enough quarters to draw off your own earning record? (DIB) But even if you haven’t worked enough quarters or it’s been more than five years since you last worked, you might qualify for Supplemental Security Income, essentially a welfare program for low asset, low income disabled persons. (SSI) You might also qualify for widow or widower benefits. (DIW) Your local SSA office can tell you what programs you might qualify for when you apply. You can also apply for disability online by going to SSA.gov/disability.

2. You have to be totally, permanently disabled not just temporarily out of work. In order to be found disabled you have to have a physical or mental condition or combination of impairments that are severe enough to keep you from substantial gainful employment at any job you might be qualified to do for at least 12 consecutive months or longer or your condition is expected to end in death. Your age should be a favorable factor in the determination of disability.

3. There may be offsets to your disability benefits, if you are receiving worker compensation, settlement from a related personal injury suit, or working part-time. Working part-time can affect the outcome of your case. You may have to repay benefits received under a private disability insurance policy

4. There’s another program for that. The government is sorry you have limitations or were injured, but the medical determination of disability is not about:

the current job market.
the lower pay you’d receive doing some other kind of work you are still capable of performing fulltime, even if you are certain it won’t support your family.
your lack of reliable transportation to get to where a job might be,
your lack of funds for job retraining,
your lack of medical insurance,
your family situation.

In short the Social Security Administration doesn’t owe you a job, training or another chance, but there might be other state or federal programs that can help you like SC Vocational Rehabilitation, food stamps, the employment office, a college or tech school career counselor and student loans, settlement funds from workers compensation or a personal injury claim. Additionally, see if your extended family can help out financially or your church has any programs that can help you with medical bills, medicine, utilities, food, clothing, furniture, one time housing needs etc.

5. You have to prove your claim. Most doctors don’t keep their medical records with Social Security requirements in mind and don’t always record what they orally tell you about lifting and walking limitations. Talk with your doctor about whether he/she thinks you are disabled and be sure your doctor puts any limitations in your record and/or writes you a separate letter explaining your diagnoses, limitations, and why he thinks you can’t work fulltime. Also if you believe your depression is severe, then you should seek professional mental health counseling in addition to medication from your family doctor.

6. You must follow prescribed treatment or have a very good reason why you can’t. Lack of medical insurance is a good reason. Not filing a prescription that controls your mood swings, diabetes, seizures, blood pressure, seasonal allergies, and mild pain so you can work is not a good reason.

7. Your behavior in regards to use of illegal and prescription drugs, excessive drinking and smoking can affect your claim for disability. Alcoholism or drug addiction cannot be a contributing factor to your disability. Clearly degenerative disc disease is not caused by drugs or alcohol so you could still qualify for disability despite your use of alcohol. However, drugs and alcohol could affect your reports of pain and depression. You would be wise to enter a treatment program and demonstrate you are making a sincere effort to get better by stopping those activities that contribute to your poor health.

8. Keep copies of everything you submit and keep good records. It’s not unusual for something to get lost in the mail or misplaced at a SS office that literally has hundreds of thousands of claimant matters to deal with. Keep a copy for yourself. Get business cards from all doctors you see and keep a calendar showing the dates of your appointments and tests. Keep a medical journal to document your bad days and who was with you when that last panic attack hit, you had a seizure, and note how long your migraine lasted etc. Correct any errors you are aware of in your medical records.

9. Don’t exaggerate your symptoms. We all have a tendency to focus on our problems and pain level. You don’t want to call into question your credibility so it’s very important to accurately describe to your doctors and vocational persons your symptoms and the frequency with which you experience pain or a periodic condition. Nothing will hurt your chances for disability faster than having your credibility questioned.

10. Seek legal help if you are denied. The initial review for disability takes about 90 days. You generally do not need professional help at this level as the SSA will obtain your medical records for you and send you for a medical or physiological evaluation at their expenses, if they think it is necessary.

If you are denied, then seek legal help. The appeals process is long (approximately 120 days at the reconsideration level and 337 work days at the hearing level in Augusta, GA and 406 work days in Columbia, SC), therefore few people can afford to just wait and see, unless they have no choice because they are truly totally and permanently disabled. If your claim lacks sufficient merit a legal professional should explain why and direct you to other community resources. Additionally, your chances of winning go up dramatically if you have competent legal representation helping you gather evidence, preparing you for the hearing and arguing the legal, medical and vocational merits of your claim.


Disclaimer:  Information contained in this column is meant to be of general information on frequently asked questions concerning disability, elder law, estate planning and probate law, and does not contain specific legal advice to a client.  No attorney-client relationship is created by reading this column.

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