April 8, 2014

Initial Application Process for Social Security Disability Benefits

In my Indiana Social Security disability law practice, I receive many phone calls each day from people who want to know what they need to do to apply for Social Security disability benefits.  Many of them have worked their whole lives, and they are uncertain and afraid because they can no longer provide income for their families.  They need help figuring out whether they qualify for Social Security benefits and what they need to do to start the application process.

My staff and I are happy not only to advise people about the application process; we also provide representation for people who are not sure they want to proceed with the initial application on their own.  Some people feel confident enough to go to Social Security’s website to complete the application on their own, or they are willing to wait a few weeks to get an appointment with their local Social Security office to start an application.  However, for those who want professional assistance from the very first step, an attorney or qualified representative can make sure that the application is completed quickly and completely.

The majority of people who apply for Social Security disability receive a denial of their initial application.  However, the information you provide in your initial application is the foundation for your entire disability case, so it is important to be as thorough as possible.  Here is a list of a some of the important information you will need to provide in your initial application:

  • Information about past and present marriages, including when you were married or divorced, and identifying information about your spouse(s)
  • The names and addresses of your employers for the past two years
  • How much you earned in wages for the past two years
  • For each of your jobs in the past fifteen years: when the job started and ended, your job title, and how much you made per hour or per year
  • A list of the medical conditions that prevent you from working
  • The names of your medications and why you are taking them
  • Addresses and telephone numbers for each doctor, hospital, or clinic you have visited since your disability began, as well as the date you first saw each doctor, the date of your most recent visit, dates of any hospital visits, and dates for any upcoming appointments you have
  • Dates for any medical tests or procedures you have had
  • Any remarks you want to include with your application – you may want to explain why your disability caused you to stop working, describe your treatment regimen, or provide additional details about your medical conditions

In my experience, the most important information we can provide Social Security is a complete list of your medical providers with their contact information.  Once the application is completed, Social Security will request your medical records from each of the relevant providers.  Social Security’s reviewers use your medical records to determine whether you have a “medically determinable impairment.”  In other words, they will look at your medical records to see if the conditions that keep you from working have been diagnosed by a doctor.  It is not enough to tell Social Security about your symptoms; in order to be found disabled those symptoms must be the results of some physical or mental abnormality that can be diagnosed using acceptable clinical or laboratory techniques.

After the application is completed, the Social Security Administration will contact you to get additional information.  They will send you a questionnaire asking about how your activities of daily living (cleaning, cooking, taking care of yourself) are affected by your impairments.  They will probably schedule “consultative examinations” in which you visit a doctor or psychologist or participate in testing or imaging to give Social Security additional information about your medical conditions.  Once they have all of the information they need, they will review your file and make a decision.

The decision process on an initial application, in my experience, takes around four months to complete.  Here are a few tips to make the process go as smoothly as possible:

  • Respond immediately to Social Security’s requests for information.  The longer they have to wait for you to return forms or phone calls, the longer it takes for them to complete your file.  Also, if you do not complete forms in a timely manner or if you fail to show up for scheduled appointments, Social Security may dismiss your case because you aren’t cooperating with them.  If that happens, you have to start all over again.
  • Provide complete information.  Social Security’s forms can be long and detailed, but they are designed to get as much information as possible from you about how your impairments limit your daily life.  Since you are probably not working due to your disability, Social Security cannot directly find out how your impairments keep you from doing work activities.  However, if pain keeps you from being able to cook your meals, or if memory problems keep you from being able to pay your own bills, that information can help Social Security see how severely your conditions limit your daily activities.  The reviewers can then figure out how those limitations would affect you if you tried to do work activities such as standing for a whole work day, using your hands to assemble small parts, or concentrating on writing a report.
  • Keep Social Security (and your attorney or representative, if you have one) updated about changes in your phone number or address.  If Social Security cannot contact you, they may close your case because they can’t get all the information they need.

As I said before, even with your best efforts, there is a strong chance that your initial application will be denied.  If that happens, it does not necessarily mean that you do not have a good case or cannot qualify for benefits.  It just means that you might have to wait for an Administrative Law Judge to hold a hearing before a decision can be made on your case.  It can be helpful to have an attorney or qualified representative with you throughout the process to answer your questions and make sure Social Security has all the information it needs to make a favorable decision on your claim.  My staff and I are available for our clients from the very first step of the process to the final decision from the Administrative Law Judge.  Call us today for a free consultation if you have any questions about what you need to know when applying for Social Security disability.

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