Disability and Chronic Liver Disease - Social Security Benefits

You may qualify for disability if you have chronic liver disease with complications or severe functional limitations.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Chronic liver disease is actually a category of diseases rather than a disease itself. Chronic liver diseases include cirrhosis, hepatitis C and B, sarcoidosis, autoimmune hepatitis, liver failure, alcoholic liver disease, liver cancer, hepatoma, and other liver diseases.

Chronic liver disease can result from alcohol and drug abuse, environmental toxins, viruses like hepatitis C, autoimmune disorders, and hereditary factors. Symptoms of chronic liver disease include jaundice, abdominal swelling, fatigue, diarrhea, and mental disorientation.

Can I Get Disability Benefits for Liver Disease?

If you're earning less than about $1,500 per month, and the disability caused by your liver damage has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 consecutive months, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will consider whether your medical condition will be considered a disability. You can get disability benefits in one of two ways:

  • by meeting the requirements of a listed impairment ("medically disabled"), or
  • by being functionally unable to work at any job ("vocationally disabled").

Getting Disability by Meeting a Liver Disease Listing

The SSA will first look to see if your liver damage meets one of its disability listings in its Listing of Impairments (also called the "Blue Book"). Listing 5.05 covers all chronic liver diseases.

Meeting Listing 5.05 for Chronic Liver Disease

To meet the requirements of the chronic liver disease listing, your doctor must have diagnosed you with either end-stage liver disease or chronic liver disease lasting at least six months, with medical documentation of at least one of the following complications:

  • esophageal or gastrointestinal hemorrhaging (blood loss from a rupture in your digestive organs) causing abnormal blood flow and that requires a blood transfusion
  • ascites (a buildup of fluid in your abdomen)
  • hydrothorax (a buildup of fluid around your lungs)
  • spontaneous bacterial peritonitis (a type of infection characterized by a buildup of white blood cells around your abdomen)
  • hepatorenal syndrome (a kidney disorder that occurs in people with serious liver problems, resulting in decreased urine output)
  • hepatopulmonary syndrome (a condition where advanced liver disease interacts with the lungs, reducing the amount of oxygen carried in the blood)
  • hepatic encephalopathy (a temporary accumulation of toxins in the brain caused by advanced liver dysfunction), or
  • end-stage liver disease with chronic liver disease (CLD) scores of 20 or greater.

The details of listing 5.05 are technical and complicated. If you're unsure whether you've had one of the above complications, ask your doctor to look at the listing with you. You may also want to ask your doctor to complete a medical source statement if they think you meet the listing criteria.

Meeting Listing 5.09 for Liver Transplantation

Social Security has a separate listing (5.09) for people who've had a liver transplant for any reason. If you provide medical evidence, such as surgical records, that you've had a liver transplant, the SSA will find that you're disabled for one year after the operation. After one year, the agency will re-evaluate your case for any residual limitations.

Getting Disability for Liver Disease Based on Functional Limitations

Few disability applicants will have documentation of the greatly reduced liver functioning needed to qualify for benefits automatically under one of the above listings. But the SSA can still award you disability benefits if you can show that your functional limitations prevent you from working.

Social Security will assess your residual functional capacity (RFC) to see what kinds of job tasks you can still do despite your symptoms from liver disease.

What Symptoms of Liver Disease Are Included In Your RFC?

If you have pain that keeps you from walking, lifting, or carrying objects for more than a certain amount of time, your RFC should include restrictions on those activities. Depending on how severe your physical limitations are, your RFC will likely give a sedentary, light, or medium exertional level.

Your RFC will also include any non-exertional restrictions caused by your disease, such as an inability to focus, difficulty remembering things, and the need for extra rest breaks due to fatigue. Make sure that you tell your doctor about any symptoms you have so that they're mentioned in your progress notes—Social Security can't include limitations in your RFC that aren't documented in your medical records.

How Does Your RFC Affect Social Security's Disability Determination?

Social Security compares your current RFC with the duties of your past work. If the SSA finds that you're still able to do your prior job despite the limitations in your RFC, the agency will deny your application for disability benefits. But if the SSA agrees that you can't do your past work, the agency will consider your age, education, and work experience (along with your RFC) to determine whether you can do any other jobs.

For most people under the age of 50, this means you'll need to show that you're unable to perform the easiest, sit-down jobs. Disability applicants 50 years of age and over may be able to qualify for benefits even if they can do a less demanding job under a special set of rules called the medical-vocational grid.

How Legal Representation Can Help You Get Benefits for Liver Disease

Because the listing requirements for liver disease are difficult to decipher, consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney who can help you gather the right medical evidence. Your lawyer can also handle communications with the SSA, write a brief on your behalf explaining why you qualify for disability, and represent you at a disability hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

Updated October 3, 2023

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