5 Mistakes to Avoid When Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits

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Practice Areas: Disability, Social Security Disability, SSDI

Applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits can be a long, arduous process. Navigating through the complex Social Security disability system can be stressful and frustrating, especially for those who are already facing medical and financial difficulties.

The sad truth of the matter is that approximately ⅔ of applicants are denied at the first stage of the disability process. Even worse, the initial application alone can take, on average, 5 to 6 months or longer for you to get your first decision (more than ⅔ of the time this will be a denial).

The odds at the first stage of the Social Security Disability process are typically not in the applicant’s favor, however if you have become disabled and are unable to work, SSDI benefits could provide you the financial support and help that you need. If you have a severe mental or physical impairment that disables you from working and can be expected to last 12 months or longer, do not be discouraged by the denial rates - apply for benefits!

After making the decision to apply for Social Security Disability benefits, you should familiarize yourself with the process and avoid some common mistakes made by disability applicants. By avoiding these mistakes, you give yourself a better chance of being approved for benefits at the earliest stage possible.

Mistake #1: Not Getting Help / Presuming you Cannot Afford Help from a Disability Attorney 

As a disability law firm, we are biased on this topic of discussion. However, you should seriously consider obtaining the assistance of an attorney who is experienced and knowledgeable in navigating Social Security processes.

An attorney will help you improve your chances for success by ensuring that your application is complete, accurate and in the proper format.  An SSD attorney also can advise you on alleging the earliest “onset date” possible.  The onset date is the date you became unable to work on a full-time basis due to your impairments and an earlier onset date can mean a larger back-benefit for you if and when your claim is approved.

Some disability applicants presume that they cannot afford the help of legal counsel. Most disability applicants are going through financial hardship as they are unable to work. However, it is important to understand how an SSD attorney’s fees are paid - on a contingency basis.  Contingency basis means that the attorney only is paid if your case is won. If you are never approved for disability benefits, your SSD attorney’s fee would be $0.

If and when you are awarded benefits, your attorney’s fee would come out of your back pay only, all future monthly benefits are yours to keep. Social Security regulates SSD attorney fees, which are 25% of your back benefit, or $6,000, whichever is less. And of course, if your case is awarded with no back-benefit, your attorney’s fee would be 25% of $0, which equals… $0!

Statistics from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) have shown that SSD applicants with representatives are approved 56% more often than applicants going it alone. All in all, hiring an SSD attorney is affordable and likely will pay for itself in higher chances for approval and decreased stress for the applicant. You can’t afford not to!

Mistake #2: Not Listing All of your Impairments upon Application 

Upon application, Social Security will ask you, “What are the illnesses, injuries, or conditions that limit your ability to work?”  It is obvious to list the most disabling of your conditions - severe back pain, PTSD, fibromyalgia, cancer, arthritis, schizophrenia, etc.  However, it is equally important to list all of the conditions that you suffer from. Yes, that means listing things like asthma, high blood pressure, obesity and depression!

Social Security is required to consider your impairments singly and in combination with each other. While an impairment such as asthma may not qualify you for disability benefits on its own, it can certainly cause you functional limitations that, when considered with your more severe impairments, can lead to a finding of “disabled.”

So much of the uphill battle of being approved for SSD benefits is proving to Social Security that you are unable to do any job within the national economy. An impairment such as asthma can cause limitations on your ability to perform in a work environment that is heavy on asthma irritants. We can then eliminate jobs considered by Social Security that you potentially could perform, such as working at a nail salon (heavy on fumes, dust, and vapor), and woodworking (wood dust is a common asthma irritant).

It will pay off to list all of your impairments, even the ones that don’t seem all that disabling by themselves.

Mistake #3: Not Checking the Status of your Disability Application 

You should check on the status of your SSD application regularly. It never pays to assume anything with Social Security, and assuming that they are working diligently on your claim could cost you months - if not years.

Social Security is rather notorious for “misplacing” (losing) paperwork that has been filed. They also are known to not notify applicants of additional information that is needed to decide a claim. We have seen claims held up for months, even years, because Social Security has misplaced your application paperwork.  By requesting status on your claim, you can ensure that your paperwork is, in fact, actually being processed.

During the medical review of your claim, there are a few instances in which additional information is required. One of the more common problems we see is during the request of your medical records. Doctor’s offices are busy, and some are worse than others when it comes to responding to requests for medical records.

Often times Social Security will request your medical records, and until they receive them back your claim is at a stand-still. Nine out of 10 times, this problem can be taken care of by a simple call made by the applicant to their doctors office, asking them to respond to Social Security’s request for medical records. But you would never know to call your doctor’s office unless Social Security tells you about the missing records. Instead of waiting for Social Security to make the phone call (which may not ever happen), you should be proactive on your claim by calling Social Security to ensure that they have all of the information that they need.

To ensure that your claim is moving along as it should be, it is vital to remain involved in the process. This is a classic example of a time when “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” applies.

Mistake #4: Not Providing Complete Medical Documentation 

At Cascadia Disability Law, we tell our clients that the more medical documentation we have, the better off we are in proving your disability. Many people will include medical sources for specialists (such as orthopedists, gastroenterologists, rheumatologists), but will not include information for their primary care provider, or the emergency room that they went to that one time.

A medical disability is proven by medical documentation. It is just as important to list the information for the emergency room visit you had when you originally injured your back as it is to list your orthopedic surgeon who performed your back surgery. In the same aspect, it is equally important to list your primary care provider, to whom you may have reported symptoms of back pain prior to receiving any specialized treatment.

Too much information is often better than not enough when it comes to medical documentation, so if you are ever in doubt of whether you should include information for a particular doctor, LIST IT!

Mistake #5: Not Appealing After Receiving a Denial

As described earlier, more than ⅔ of applicants are denied upon application for SSD benefits.  One of the biggest mistakes that we see after a denial is applicants not appealing in a timely manner, or not appealing at all and reapplying instead. Do not assume that Social Security got your denial right. With such high denial rates at application, there is a significant likelihood that Social Security made the wrong decision in denying your claim.

After you receive a denial from Social Security, and assuming that you disagree with their decision, you are allowed 65 days in which to appeal. This 65 day deadline is strict, and you will not be given additional time unless you can prove to Social Security that you have a valid reason (even then there is a chance they will not allow it). So it is vital to your claim to appeal in a timely manner.

If your claim is denied, it does not benefit you to re-apply instead of appealing. This only will set your case back, as Social Security will take another 5 to 6 months to make another application determination. There is also a high chance that your application after reapplying will be denied as it typically covers all of the same issues as your first claim. To avoid wasting a significant amount of time, it is crucial to appeal, and to do so well within the time limits.

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