Frequently Asked Questions About Social Security Disability

1. What is the definition of disability used by Social Security?

Under the Social Security Act, “disability” means “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”

2. How many different types of Social Security disability benefits are there?

There are at least five major types of Social Security disability benefits. Disability Insurance Benefits is the most important type of Social Security disability benefits. It goes to individuals who have worked in recent years (five out of the last 10 years in most cases) who are now disabled. Disabled Widow’s and Widower’s Benefits are paid to individuals who are at least 50 and become disabled within a certain amount of time after the death of their husband or wife. The late husband or wife must have worked enough under Social Security to be insured. Disabled Adult Child Benefits go to the children of persons who are deceased or who are drawing Social Security disability or retirement benefits. The child must have become disabled before age 22. For Disability Insurance Benefits, Disabled Widow’s or Widower’s Benefits and Disabled Adult Child benefits, it does not matter whether the disabled individual is rich or poor. Benefits are paid based upon a Social Security earnings record. Supplemental Security Income benefits, however, are paid to individuals who are poor and who are disabled. It does not matter for SSI whether an individual has worked in the past or not. SSI child’s disability benefits are a variety of SSI benefits paid to children under the age of 18 who are disabled. The way in which disability is determined is a bit different for children.

3. How do I apply for Social Security disability benefits?

The best, surest way to file a Social Security disability claim is to go to the nearest Social Security office in person and wait (often for a few hours) to see someone to file the claim in person. In the alternative, a person may contact Social Security by telephone and arrange for a telephone interview to file the claim.

4. I am disabled, but I have plenty of money in the bank. Do I have to wait until this money is gone before I apply for Social Security disability benefits?

No. If you have worked in recent years or if you are applying for Disabled Widow’s or Widower’s benefits or Disabled Adult Child benefits, it does not matter how much money you have in the bank. There is no reason to wait to file the claim.

5. I used to work but lately I have been staying home taking care of the kids. I have now become sick. Can I get Social Security disability benefits?

Possibly. If you have worked five out of the 10 years under Social Security before becoming disabled, you will have enough earnings in to potentially qualify for Social Security disability benefits. For individuals 31 or less, the requirements are a little different, since such individuals have not had such a long time to work. Unless a person has been staying home and taking care of their children for quite a long time, however, it is very possible that they will qualify for Social Security disability benefits based upon their own earnings. Also a homemaker, if poor enough, can qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) whether he or she has worked in the past or not.

6. How long do I have to wait after becoming disabled before I can file for Social Security disability benefits?

Not even one day. You can file for Social Security disability benefits on the very same day that you become disabled. Many individuals make the mistake of waiting months and even years after becoming disabled before filing a Social Security disability claim. There is no reason to file a Social Security disability claim if one has only a minor illness or one which is unlikely to last a year or more. However, an individual who suffers serious illness or injury and expects to be out of work for a year or more should not delay in filing a claim for Social Security disability benefits.

7. I am still on sick leave from my employer. Can I file for Social Security disability now or do I have to wait until the sick leave is exhausted?

No, you do not have to wait until the sick leave is exhausted. You should file for Social Security disability benefits now, if you believe that you will be out of work for a year or more.

8. I got hurt on the job. I am drawing worker’s compensation benefits. Can I file a claim for Social Security disability benefits now or should I wait until the worker’s compensation ends?

You do not have to wait until the worker’s compensation ends and you should not wait that long. An individual can file a claim for Social Security disability benefits while receiving worker’s compensation benefits. It is best to file the Social Security disability claim as soon as possible because otherwise there may be a gap between the time the worker’s compensation ends and the Social Security disability benefits begin.

9. Can I get both worker’s compensation and Social Security disability benefits?

Yes. There is an offset, which reduces Social Security disability benefits because of worker’s compensation benefits paid, but in virtually all cases, there is still some Social Security disability benefits to be paid. In a few states the offset works the other way – – worker’s compensation benefits are reduced because of Social Security disability benefits.

10. How can I tell if I will be found disabled by Social Security?

Unless your disability is catastrophic (such as terminal cancer, a heart condition so bad that you are on a heart transplant waiting list, total paralysis of both legs, etc.), there is no easy way for you to tell whether you will be found disabled by Social Security. In the end, the decision of whether or not to apply for Social Security disability benefits should not be based upon whether or not the person feels that Social Security will find them disabled. Attorneys familiar with Social Security disability can make predictions about who will win and who will lose, but even they can seldom be sure. An individual should make the decision about whether or not to file for Social Security disability based upon their own belief about their condition. If the individual feels that he or she is disabled and is not going to be able to return to work in the near future, the individual should file for Social Security disability benefits. If denied, the individual should consult with an attorney familiar with Social Security disability to get an opinion as to the chances of success on appeal.

11. Can you receive Social Security disability benefits for _________________ (insert the name of whatever disease you are interested in)?

In almost every case, no matter what the disease is, the answer is the same – “Maybe, it just depends upon how badly you are affected by the disease.” One example might be cancer. The word “cancer” is scary to anyone, but there are many cancers which can be treated and cured very quickly, with little or no lasting effect. On the other hand, of course, there are cancers which cause great suffering and ultimately death. The question in each individual case is “How sick is this particular individual with cancer and how long is this person going to remain sick?” Skin diseases are another example. The vast majority of skin diseases, while annoying, would not be considered to be disabling. On the other hand, there are some uncommon, very severe skin problems which are clearly disabling. In extreme cases, psoriasis, which is not rare, may be disabling. Thus, almost without exception, the mere fact that an individual has a disease with a certain name does not guarantee that the individual either will or will not be found disabled. It all depends upon how sick the person is.

12. Do you have to be permanently disabled to get Social Security disability benefits?

No. You have to have been disabled for at least a year or be expected to be disabled for at least a year or have a condition that can be expected to result in death within a year.

13. I have several health problems, but no one of them disables me. It is the combination that disables me. Can I get Social Security disability benefits?

Social Security is supposed to consider the combination of impairments that an individual suffers in determining disability. Many, perhaps most claimants for Social Security disability benefits have more than one health problem and the combined effects of all of the health problems must be considered.

14. I got hurt in an automobile accident. I am disabled now, but I expect that I will be able to return to work after I recover. Should I file for Social Security disability benefits?

If you expect to be out of work for a year or more on account of illness or injury, you should file for Social Security disability benefits.

15. How does Social Security determine if I am disabled?

Social Security is supposed to gather your medical records and carefully consider all of your health problems, as well as your age, education, and work experience. In general, Social Security is supposed to decide whether you are able to do your past work. If Social Security decides that you are unable to do your past work, they are supposed to consider whether there is any other work which you can do considering your health problems and your age, education, and work experience.

16. Who decides if I am disabled?

After an individual files a Social Security disability claim, the case is sent to a disability examiner at the Disability Determination agency in your state. This individual, working with a doctor, makes the initial decision on the claim. If the claim is denied and the individual requests reconsideration, the case is then sent to another disability examiner at the Disability Determination agency, where it goes through much the same process. If a claim is denied at reconsideration, the claimant may then request a hearing. At this point, the case is sent to an Administrative Law Judge who works for Social Security. The Administrative Law Judge makes an independent decision upon the claim. This is the only level at which the claimant and the decision maker get to see each other.

17. Why does Social Security consider my age in determining whether I am disabled?

Social Security has to consider age, because that is what the Social Security Act requires. As people get older, they become less adaptable, less able to switch to different jobs to cope with health problems. A severe foot injury which might cause a 30- year- old to switch to a job in which he or she can sit down most of the time, might disable a 60- year- old person who could not make the adjustment to a different type of work.

18. Is there a list of illnesses that Social Security considers disabling?

Not really. Because most types of illness can vary from minor to severe, there is no one simple list of illnesses which Social Security considers to be disabling. However, if an illness has reached a very severe level with certain medical hallmarks, Social Security will award benefits on the basis of medical considerations alone.

19. What can I do to improve my chances of winning my Social Security disability claim?

Be honest and complete in giving information to Social Security about what is disabling you. Many claimants, for instance, fail to mention their psychiatric problems to Social Security because they are embarrassed about them. In almost all cases, individuals who were slow learners in school fail to mention this fact to Social Security, even though it can have a good deal to do with whether or not the Social Security disability claim is approved. Beyond being honest and complete with Social Security, the most important thing that you can do is just keep appealing and hire an experienced person to represent you. It is important to appeal because most claims are denied at the initial level, but are approved at higher levels of review. It is important to hire an experienced person to represent you because you do not understand the way Social Security works. Statistically, claimants who employ an attorney to represent them are much more likely to win than those who go unrepresented.

20. How do I find an attorney to represent me before on my Social Security disability claim?

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) offers a referral service. You may call NOSSCR at 1-800-431-2804 during regular Eastern Time business hours.

Social Security Claimant's Representative