By Stacy Thompson
As an attorney practicing in the area of social security disability, I often get asked “But what is it you DO, exactly?” Many people are either unaware of the Social Security Administration program for individuals who are unable to work due to medical problems, or believe that the process to obtain benefits is simple, straightforward and quick. I spend a lot of my time educating people on the program itself, but I make my living because the system itself is anything BUT simple, straightforward and quick. In representing claimants for the last seventeen years, I’ve heard my share of myths involving the SSA disability process, so allow me to debunk a few –
- If a doctor states I am unable to work, I will automatically be approved for benefits.
Having the support of your treating doctor in your application can be helpful, but does not guarantee that you will be awarded. SSA will obtain medical information from all treating sources, including hospitals, clinics, physicians, etc., and will make a determination as to whether your limitations and restrictions would keep you from working.
- I can’t return to my past work that I have been doing all of these years, so I should be approved for benefits.
The definition of disability under the social security regulations is an inability to perform any work due to a physical or mental impairment (or combination of impairments); the inability to do your past work is one facet of the determination process, but when taking into account age, education and any skills you have from past work, SSA must also decide whether you could perform any other work that exists in the national economy.
- I have a terminal condition but it’s still going to take me months to be awarded benefits.
SSA has established a list of “compassionate allowances” – conditions which may expedite the processing and handling of benefits. In compassionate allowances cases, benefits may be awarded more quickly and without the usual process involved in an application. For a list of compassionate allowances, go to: https://www.ssa.gov/compassionateallowances
- SSA denies everyone / SSA approves people who really don’t have anything wrong with them.
Yes, these two statements are contradictory, but are frequently believed – many claims are turned down initially (only about 30% of the cases filed are approved initially) and should be appealed. Of the cases that are appealed through to the hearing process, about 45% are approved by an administrative law judge.
On the flip side, I run across those who believe that they have a friend, neighbor or acquaintance who is on disability but is not deserving. I always point out that the process is very thorough and arduous – SSA does not easily approve anyone, and sometimes there is much more going on medically than may meet the eye.
- I must be out of work a year before filing for benefits.
Although the regulations do require that an individual have a condition, or combination of conditions, that has lasted or could be expected to last twelve months longer (or result in death), the latter part of that definition is important – if your condition may be expected to last a year or longer, then you may file for disability benefits at any time. I recommend filing as soon as possible, given the average application time is between two and three years from filing to award.
- I must have an attorney or representative to obtain benefits.
An attorney or non-attorney representative is not required to file for or obtain benefits. However, an experienced attorney/representative can certainly assist with the development of your claim and in preparing you for your hearing. The hearing itself will be before an administrative law judge, who is an impartial adjudicator, however, having someone who is knowledgeable in the applicable rules and regulations can certainly improve your chances of success. Attorneys and non-attorney representatives who are eligible to charge a fee do so on a contingency fee basis, which means payment of fees comes from any back pay awarded (generally 25%).
The above are only a few of the myths surrounding social security disability and do not answer or address all questions/issues involved in these types of cases – for more information, visit the SSA website at www.ssa.gov.