If you have a health condition that totally prevents you from working, you might think this would be enough to qualify you for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits. And in a perfect world, it would.
But in the real world, if you want to receive disability benefits, you must also persuade the Social Security Administration (SSA) that you can't work for medical reasons. How best to prove this depends on the circumstances of your case, but generally, your medical records, your doctor's opinion, and your own statements play a large part.
The last of these—your own statements—includes not only your testimony at your disability hearing but also the disability paperwork you provide as part of your initial application. The sad truth is that the outcome of your disability claim depends not only on how disabled you are, but also on how well you complete your disability application. (For an overview, read our article on how to file for SSDI benefits.)
Social Security needs a clear picture of what you did at work in the past and how limited you are now in your physical and mental abilities. Here are some tips on how to make sure that Social Security gets accurate information on your limitations and your past work duties, and why it's important.
When completing your application for SSDI benefits or testifying at your hearing, the key is not to underrate the severity of your condition. You should clearly identify all the reasons, both mental and physical, that prevent you from holding a full-time job. If you have "good days and bad days," as many disability applicants do, describe what happens on a bad day. After all, those are the days that prevent you from working.
If you're asked how long you can sit, stand or walk, or how much you can lift, state the most you can do without pain. If you can lift 20 pounds but only while in excruciating pain, don't say you can lift 20 pounds. The reason Social Security asks these questions is to figure out what you can do at a job on a day-to-day basis, not what you can do one time while gritting your teeth.
Social Security disability forms and judges will also ask about your daily activities: whether you can wash the dishes, go shopping, bathe yourself, drive a car, and so on. (In Social Security jargon, these are known as Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs.)
Many applicants are denied because they claim they can go about their daily activities without any problems. Think long and hard about whether this is true for you. Do you have to use a motorized cart at the supermarket? Do you have to take breaks while washing dishes? Do you use a handrail to get in and out of the bath? Does your medication cause side effects like frequent headaches or fatigue?
Social Security judges often seize on your ability to perform daily activities as evidence you can hold a full-time job. If you need help completing tasks in your daily life, say so.
If you're forthcoming about your physical or mental limitations and how they affect your life, you'll have a much better chance of receiving a favorable determination from the claims examiner or administrative law judge.
As part of your claim for Social Security disability benefits, you'll be required to fill out a work history questionnaire. This form asks you to describe the skill level and physical demands required by each type of work that you've performed (for longer than three months) during the 15 years prior to becoming disabled.
When answering questions about your past work, don't overestimate your role or responsibilities. For example, don't describe yourself as a manager or supervisor unless you had the ability to hire, fire, or discipline employees. And describe exactly what you did in your job—don't talk yourself up or down. It's as simple as that.
Why are details about your past work important? The majority of Social Security disability approvals are "medical-vocational allowances," which are decisions that take into account a disability applicant's work history, education, age, and medical impairments. Your past work figures heavily into this equation. Learn more about how past relevant work affects your disability claim.
If you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you can file your whole claim online on Social Security's website. Applying online is generally the fastest way to apply for benefits, but you can fill out the application at your own speed. Most individuals filing for SSI only can't file the entire application online, but they can get started on Social Security's website. If you're not comfortable online, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to start your claim.
If you'd like assistance with your application, you have several ways to get help with the paperwork.
Most disability applicants wait until after they've been denied at the initial level to hire an attorney. For many applicants, this can be a mistake. That's because a legal professional can help you complete your initial application for benefits in a way that is accurate but persuasive. Applicants who complete applications on their own often make mistakes that their attorneys can't undo, from underestimating their physical limitations to overestimating their work responsibilities. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time.
No matter when you hire a legal representative, the most you'll pay is 25% of past-due benefits, with nothing out of pocket other than small case-related expenses. That means you don't have much to lose by hiring a representative even before you file your application.
Updated April 24, 2023