Filing for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can be a long and frustrating process. Disability applicants ("claimants") can unintentionally complicate the process by making several common missteps that can delay the review of their application—or even decrease their chance of getting approved for benefits.
By avoiding the following common mistakes, you'll shorten the time you spend waiting for a disability determination, and you'll have a better shot at qualifying for benefits.
When you apply for disability benefits, you're telling the Social Security Administration (SSA) that you can't work at any job, even if you were offered one. But when you file for unemployment, you're saying that you can work—you just haven't found a job yet.
In the SSA's view, these statements are contradictory. The agency will think that you're not telling the truth either on your disability application or your unemployment application. And if the SSA thinks you're not making truthful statements, your chances of getting benefits will plummet.
But not everyone who applies for both benefits is double-dipping. Many people apply for unemployment benefits thinking they can return to work, only to later find out that they overestimated their capabilities. In the best-case scenario, the SSA will approve your application but will adjust your onset date to after you've stopped getting unemployment. In the worst-case scenario, the SSA won't believe that you can't work and will deny your claim for benefits.
Disability benefits are awarded to people who, due to medical conditions, are no longer able to work full-time at any job. If you tell Social Security that you can't work while you're still earning above what the agency considers substantial gainful activity (SGA), the SSA will deny your claim.
You can work part-time below the SGA threshold (in 2023, $1,470) without having your earnings affect your disability claim, but be prepared to explain these earnings to a claims examiner or administrative law judge, who will almost certainly want to know why you can't perform your current position full-time.
Representatives who practice before the Social Security Administration are required by law to work on contingency, meaning they don't get paid unless you win your claim for disability benefits. You'll almost never have to pay anything upfront or out of pocket for representation.
If you sign a fee agreement with a disability attorney, you're agreeing to let the SSA pay your attorney out of any back pay you're owed. The amount the SSA can pay in fees is limited by law to 25% of any past-due benefits you're entitled to, with a maximum fee cap of $7,200.
The SSA and state disability determination agencies process thousands of disability claims each year. With such a large number of applications, it's not unheard of for notices to get mailed at the last minute, medical records requests to get sent to the wrong address, or consultative examination appointments to be scheduled incorrectly.
Many people who file disability claims get frustrated with the delays and don't follow up on their application, potentially setting back an approval by months or even years. Don't rely on a swamped agency employee to be on top of your application. If you're actively following up on your claim status, you can alert the agency to any missing information in time for them to catch and fix the problem.
The disability application process involves three stages: initial review, reconsideration, and the hearing level. If you receive a denial at any of these stages, you need to tell Social Security that you don't agree with their decision that you're not disabled—by filing an appeal.
You generally have 60 days from receiving a denial to submit an appeal form. It's important to keep these deadlines in mind because if you miss an appeal deadline—unless you have a really good reason why you missed it—you'll have to start your application over from square one.
Most people who receive disability benefits don't get approved until after they've been to a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). Because the hearing is your first (and usually only) chance to speak directly to the person who decides whether you're disabled, you'll want to put your best foot forward in order to increase your chances of a favorable decision.
Don't go into your disability hearing without knowing what kind of medical evidence the ALJ needs to see or how to answer the questions that the ALJ will ask. By the time you've gotten a hearing scheduled in front of an ALJ, you've likely waited over a year since you first applied for benefits, so you don't want to waste this valuable opportunity by winging it.
The SSA is skeptical of disability claims filed by applicants who don't follow their doctors' recommendations. For example, if you apply for disability because you have frequent seizures, but you're not taking the anticonvulsants your doctor prescribed, the agency doesn't know if the medications would have reduced your seizures enough for you to return to work.
If you don't have a good reason why you didn't follow "doctor's orders," Social Security can deny your claim based on noncompliance with treatment. You can explain why you didn't take your medications in your application, but make sure it's a good reason (like you couldn't afford the cost).
Even if you're applying for disability because of a physical injury or illness, you should let the agency know about any mental symptoms that arise as a result. The SSA is required to consider the impact of all of your impairments, physical and mental, on your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Your RFC is a set of restrictions describing the most you can do in a work environment, so if you're struggling with mental problems (such as trouble focusing), the agency is required to reflect those limitations in your RFC. A lot of claimants, perhaps out of embarrassment or a sense that they should just "suck it up," downplay or ignore their mental health problems in their disability application. This isn't wise.
The SSA is aware that physical pain can take a serious toll on mental health, and the agency doesn't expect you to work in an environment that's too stressful. But if you don't tell the SSA about any difficulties you're having mentally, they can assume that you don't have any problems tolerating stress or being around other people, and can perform demanding tasks at work.
Your medical records—evidence of doctors' notes, lab tests, X-rays, and hospital admissions—are the most important part of your disability application. Social Security needs to see proof that you have a medically determinable severe impairment that's preventing you from working. Because most people don't go to the doctor unless something's wrong, if you haven't seen a doctor, the SSA will assume that you don't have a condition that needs medical attention.
Getting medical treatment when you don't have insurance, can't afford it, or can't make it to the doctor's office can be difficult. The SSA doesn't expect you to pay for medical care that you can't afford, but the agency will need to see at least some visits to a doctor or therapist before you can be awarded disability. (For more information, see our article on how to get disability without health insurance.)
Social Security values the opinions of your regular doctors who've been treating you for a long time and can help shed light on how your health problems limit you. Having a medical source statement from your treating providers can be very useful in establishing that you're disabled—but only if the opinion is favorable.
Some doctors don't provide medical opinions for disability claims as a matter of policy or principle. (You definitely don't want an opinion from a doctor who thinks that everybody who applies for disability benefits is "faking it.") Other doctors might be willing to fill out an RFC form, but then say that you have zero limitations or can lift 100 pounds.
More often, doctors will agree to provide an opinion, but their note is too vague to be helpful. Consider switching to a provider who will complete a statement about your limitations with reference to specific medical evidence that shows how they arrived at their opinion.
Updated February 6, 2023
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