Occasionally prospective clients contact our office for representation before they have applied for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits. We are always happy to answer any questions you may have, but we generally do not officially get involved in SSD cases until the initial application has been denied. In theory, you should not need an attorney. You have worked hard and paid into the Social Security system for most of your adult life. Part of the money withheld from your paychecks was intended to provide you with disability insurance. When the system works, you can get your disability benefits started without an attorney and without paying attorney fees.
Recent studies suggest that the Social Security Administration approves nearly 40% of the applications they receive for disability benefits. If you think you may be entitled to disability benefits, you should apply as soon as possible. In some instances, Social Security will pay benefits up to 12 months before your application. If you wait until next month to apply, you could lose out on several hundred dollars worth of past benefits.
Although the application is fairly lengthy, you should be able to answer most, if not all, of the questions from memory. If you need assistance filling out the application due to problems with reading, writing, etc., Social Security will help you. The Social Security Administration has tried to make the application forms easy to understand. They have also established an on-line application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits which you can access at the Social Security website. At the time of drafting this page, an online application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits was not available. If you would prefer to apply in person, you can initiate the application process by calling 1-800-772-1213. You may also want to check the Social Security Administration’s web page at www.SSA.gov for additional information and answers to many questions.
You do not need to gather your medical records before you apply and you do not have to prove you are disabled when you apply. Rather, you simply need to provide Social Security with information so that they can investigate to determine whether you are disabled. The only information that people often can’t provide from memory are:
- Name, address, and telephone number for each of your doctors
- Your work history for 15 years prior to the start of your disability, including approximate dates of employment
- Names and dosages of your medications
Even with regard to this information, it is better to apply and provide incomplete answers than to delay your application. Social Security will request your medical records directly from the doctors and hospitals you list on the application.
Again, you do not need to present proof of your disability when you apply for disability benefits, but you may submit evidence after you have filed your application. Generally, you will have very little, if any control, over the medical evidence that is in your file at the application stage. However, you may be able to improve your chances of being found disabled, by submitting additional non-medical evidence concerning your disability. Examples of documents that may improve your chances of being found disabled include:
- A letter from your last employer describing the problems you had performing your work duties.
- A letter from your church leader, describing the problems he/she has observed. For example, your church leader may have noticed that you used to be very active in church activities, but your attendance has dropped significantly and even when you are in attendance your level of participation has declined. They may be able to describe seeing you on days when you were in so much pain that you were grimacing and had to stand up and walk around at the back of the church.
- A letter from volunteer organizations in which you used to be active, but due to your injury/condition you are no longer able to participate. For example, if you used to volunteer at your child’s school, but over time your injury/condition progressed to the point that you simply couldn’t sit long enough to help, the teacher may be able to confirm the problems he/she has observed.
- A letter from a friend or neighbor describing changes in your level of activity or your personality since your injury or condition arose. Often with chronic disabling injuries/conditions, people suffer from reactive depression. Friends are a good source of information to document changes in your mood and personality.
- School records showing you did poorly in school.
- A report from a vocational rehabilitation agency finding that you are not a candidate for retraining.
None of these documents are required, but in a close case they can be helpful. Ask whoever is preparing the letter to base the letter on what they have observed, rather than what you have told them. (In other words, it would be better if a friend describes, for example, that they have often observed you walking hunched over, holding your back and grimacing, rather than writing that you have often told them that your back was hurting.) Also, ask them to include specific details and examples, rather than generalizations. Compare the following, for example:
No Details: Bob and I used to go fishing together all the time, but now his back hurts so much that we almost never go fishing anymore.
Details: Bob and I have been fishing buddies for more than ten years. We used to spend nearly every Saturday fishing in area lakes and streams. However, since he hurt his back last year, we have only been fishing together two or three times. The last time was a few months ago. Bob looked miserable when I picked him up in the morning. He was stiff and walked very slowly. When we got to the lake, I had to do all the work getting the boat in the water. Even though it was a clear calm day, Bob’s back pain was so bad that he had to catch his breath every time a small wake rocked the boat. We only fished for an hour before Bob couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to lay down in the bottom of the boat as we made our way to shore and I had to help him get from the boat to my truck. I haven’t been able to get Bob to go fishing with me since then.
Details add credibility and therefore a detailed letter is more likely to help than one with a bunch of generalizations.
If your application is denied, don’t be discouraged. The Social Security Administration wrongly denies benefits in many cases. You have a right to a hearing with a United States Administrative Law Judge. The Administrative Law Judge does not work for Social Security and he is not bound by any prior decisions reached by the Social Security Administration. Further, whereas the initial decisions tend to be based almost exclusively on the medical records, an Administrative Law Judge will have the benefit of your testimony regarding how your injuries impact your ability to work. More than half of the people nationally who pursue their claim to a hearing are found to be disabled.
If you are denied at the application stage, please contact our office. We would be happy to meet with you for a free initial consultation. If you choose to have us represent you, we will assist with all of the paperwork in connection with the appeals and we will help gather the medical evidence necessary to prove that you are disabled. Further, we will help you prepare for the hearing so that your testimony will maximize your chances of being found disabled. Finally, we will attend the hearing with you to ensure that you have an opportunity to fully explain your particular circumstances to the judge.
Click here for our FAQ about Social Security Disability Law.