Frequently Asked Questions

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

The Social Security Administration (SSA) makes it easier to be found disabled, as you get older. It becomes easier for a few people at age 45, 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.

You don't have to be bedridden, even if you're a younger person. 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.

Nevertheless, being unable to work and being found "disabled" by the Social Security Administration (SSA) are two different things. It is often difficult to convince SSA that someone is "disabled" even when he or she genuinely cannot work. But it is not impossible.

If you really cannot work, apply for social security disability benefits. And keep appealing denials at least through the hearing before an administrative law judge.

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

Telephone the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213. When you call, you will be given the option of 1) going to the social security office to apply for benefits or 2) having your application taken over the telephone. If you choose to go the social security office, the person at the 800 number will schedule an appointment for you and give you directions to the social security office. 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.

Do you have any advice about applying for disability benefits?

Yes. Give Social Security 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) sign the application for you. After the application is filed, however, a lawyer’s help may make the difference between winning and losing even at this stage.

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?

You can appeal in one of two ways. 1) Telephone the Social Security Administration and make arrangements for your appeal to be handled by phone and mail. Or 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.

Your denial letter will tell you about appealing. The first appeal is usually a "reconsideration." You must request reconsideration and then, after the reconsideration is denied, you must request a hearing within 60 days.

Do I have to have an attorney at my hearing?

No, but your chances of success will be significantly improved if you have an attorney representing you.

How long does the appeals process take?

About three to four months at the reconsideration level and about 20 months at the hearings level. Depending on the strength of your case, at the hearings level an attorney may be able to get a decision in only a few months (via a pre-hearing conference with the Administrative Law Judge) without the need for an actual hearing.

Can I have my hearing requested expedited?

Yes, if you have a terminal illness, are suicidal, or are classified as a "dire need" individual (homelessness, declaration of bankruptcy, mortgage foreclosure, utility shut-off, no health insurance, or inability to pay medical bills).

What is the biggest mistake 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 should I contact you about representing me?

In the past, we encouraged people to wait until it was time to request a hearing before contacting us. But things have changed. The Social Security Administration has put new emphasis on making the right decision at the earlier stages. It is also applying the same legal rules at the earlier stages that used to be applied only at the hearing stage. This means that a lawyer’s help at the early stages may make a difference.

We recognize that about one-third of those people who apply will be found disabled even without a lawyer’s help. We understand that some people may want to go through the earlier stages by themselves. On the one hand, if you are successful in handling it yourself, you will save having to pay attorney’s fees. On the other hand, your case might be one in which an attorney’s help would make the difference. It is up to you whether to contact us when you first apply or to wait until you are denied; but the general rule is that it is better to contact us earlier rather than later.

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 $6,000.00 (starting June 1, 2009 – until then $5,300.00). That is, the fee is one-fourth of those benefits that build up by the time you are found disabled and benefits are paid. For example, if past-due benefits are $12,000.00, the attorney fee is $3,000.00. But if past-due benefits are $28,000.00, the attorney fee is the maximum of $6,000, not $7,000.00.

But under no circumstances do fees come out of current monthly benefits.

Is there anywhere I can get free legal services?

Yes. If you qualify for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI), you may be able to get help from your local Legal Aid or other legal services provider. Also some disease groups offer pro bono assistance to their members who have limited assets and income.

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