Sunday, January 17, 2010

Applying for Social Security Disability

Many of our clients ask us for help with applying for Social Security Disability. Below is a list of frequently asked questions about applying for SSD. If you, family member or friend has questions about Social Security Disability, contact me for a free consultation.

How can I tell if I am disabled enough to apply for social security disability benefits?

Social Security regulations make it easier to be found disabled as you get older. It becomes easier for a few people at age 45 (those unable to read English), for more people at age 50, for most people at age 55, and even more people at age 60. If you’re over age 55 and you cannot do any job you have done in the past 15 years, you should definitely apply. If you’re over age 50 and have a severe impairment that keeps you from doing all but the easiest jobs, you ought to apply.

But even if you’re a younger person, you don’t have to be bedridden in order to be found disabled. If you’re under age 45 or 50 and you cannot do your past jobs and you cannot work full time at any regular job, that ought to be enough.

How do I apply for Social Security Disability or SSI benefits?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers three ways for you to apply for Social Security disability benefits: by telephone, in person at a local Social Security office, or via the Internet. If you want to use the Internet to apply, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/applyfordisability/adult.htm.

If you want to complete an application for SSI or Social Security disability by telephone or in person, you must first telephone SSA at 1-800-772-1213. If you choose to go to a Social Security office to complete the application, the person at the 800 number above will schedule an appointment for you, give you directions to the Social Security office, and tell you what papers you need to bring along. If you want to apply by phone, you will be given a date and an approximate time to expect a phone call from someone at the Social Security office who will take your application over the phone. The application will then be mailed to you for your signature.

Do you have any advice about applying for disability benefits?

Yes. Give SSA all the information it asks for in a straightforward way. Be truthful. Do not exaggerate or minimize your disability.

Should I contact a lawyer to help me apply for Social Security Disability or SSI benefits?

As a rule, a person does not need a lawyer’s help to file the application. SSA makes this part very easy and, in fact, it usually will not let a lawyer (or anyone else) file the application for you.

What happens if I am denied benefits and I do not appeal within 60 days?

You’ll have to start over with a new application — and it may mean that you’ll lose some back benefits. So it’s important to appeal all denials within 60 days. It’s better if you appeal right away so that you get through the bureaucratic denial system faster. The quicker you can get to the hearing stage the better.

How do I appeal?

Your denial letter will tell you about appealing. The first appeal is called a “reconsideration.” You must request reconsideration and then, after the reconsideration is denied, you must request a hearing within the 60-day time limit.

You can appeal in one of three ways. (1) Telephone the Social Security Administration and make arrangements for your appeal to be handled by phone and mail. (2) Go to the Social Security office to submit your appeal. If you go to the Social Security office, be sure to take along a copy of your denial letter. And be sure that the Social Security representative gives you a signed copy of your appeal paper showing that you appealed on time. Or (3) appeal online at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps6z/iAppeals/ap001.jsp. Be sure to print and retain the receipt for your appeal so that you can prove you appealed on time.

What are the biggest mistakes people make when trying to get disability benefits?

Failing to appeal. More than half of the people whose applications are denied fail to appeal. Many people who are denied on reconsideration fail to request a hearing.

Another mistake, although much less common, is made by people who fail to obtain appropriate medical care. Some people with long-term chronic medical problems feel that they have not been helped much by doctors. Thus, for the most part, they stop going for treatment. This is a mistake for both medical and legal reasons. First, no one needs good medical care more than those with chronic medical problems. Second, medical treatment records provide the most important evidence of disability in a Social Security case.

Since medical evidence is so important, should I have my doctor write a letter to the Social Security Administration and should I gather medical records and send them to SSA?

SSA will gather the medical records, so you don’t have to do that. Whether you should ask your doctor to write a letter is a hard question. A few people win their cases by having their doctors write letters. You can try this if you want to. The problem is that the medical-legal issues are so complicated in most disability cases that a doctor may inadvertently give the wrong impression. Thus, obtaining medical reports may be something best left for a lawyer to do.

When is the best time for a lawyer to get involved in my case?

Many people wait until it is time to request a hearing before contacting us to represent them. Although everyone agrees that a lawyer’s help is essential at the hearing and the great majority of people who have lawyers win their cases at a hearing, how necessary it is to have the help of a lawyer at the early stages is a subject with arguments on both sides.

More than one-third of those people who apply will be found disabled after filing the initial application without a lawyer’s help. About 15% of those who request reconsideration are found disabled at the reconsideration stage, mostly without a lawyer’s help. If you are successful in handling the case yourself at the initial or reconsideration steps, you will save having to pay attorney’s fees. It is hard to predict which cases may benefit from a lawyer’s help early on.

We never get involved when someone is just filing an application. SSA makes it difficult for a lawyer to do much at this point. As a rule, we won’t get involved in a case until after an initial denial is issued and a legal controversy exists. About once or twice per year, though, a claimant points out to us an obvious (and quite unusual) legal problem with a case. We do consider getting involved in such cases before the initial determination is issued.

If you want us to consider becoming involved in your case at the initial or reconsideration steps, please telephone us to discuss your situation. Otherwise, the best time to call us is as soon as you get the reconsideration denial.

How much do you charge?

Almost all of our clients prefer a “contingent fee,” a fee paid only if they win. The usual fee is 25% (one-quarter) of back benefits up to a maximum amount set by SSA, currently $6,000.00. That is, the fee is one-fourth of those benefits that build up by the time you are found disabled and benefits are paid. No fee comes out of current monthly benefits. In addition to the fee, you will be expected to pay the expense of gathering medical records, obtaining medical opinion letters, etc.

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