The Importance of the ADL Form to Your Disability Case

Be thoughtful when filling out Social Security's function report, detailing how you manage your daily activities.

By , Attorney
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One of the ways the Social Security Administration (SSA, or "Social Security") will evaluate your claim for disability is to look at how your medical condition affects your day-to-day life. After you submit your application for disability, Social Security will mail you a form that asks you to describe your activities of daily living (ADLs). ADLs are the things we do on a day-to-day basis, like cleaning house, cooking, bathing, getting dressed, using the bathroom, taking care of pets, and paying bills.

Officially, Social Security calls this form the Adult Function Report, SSA-3373, though sometimes Social Security reps refer to the form as the ADL questionnaire.

When Do I Submit the Function Report?

Whether you submitted your application for Social Security Disability benefits online or if you completed your application over the phone, a claims examiner at Disability Determination Services (DDS) will mail you a blank Function Report. Typically, DDS requests that this form be completed and returned within 10 days. However, some claimants (the people requesting disability benefits) actually receive the form after the 10-day "deadline" has already expired. DDS will still accept forms after the deadline, but it's best to complete the form as soon as possible to prevent delays in processing your application.

Keeping your Function Report up to date is also important. It's not unusual for your ability to perform ADLs to change as your medical condition progresses. If your condition changes significantly and you have more trouble doing daily activities, you should submit a new Function Report to the SSA.

Is the Disability Function Report Important?

Many people don't take the time, or enough time, to complete the Function Report because they think it's unimportant, but this is a mistake. Social Security staff, including the administrative law judges (ALJs) who hear these cases, use the answers on the Function Report to determine how well you can perform day-to-day tasks and to see if the statements you make about your condition are consistent. This is why it is so important to complete the Function Report with as much detail as possible and to be accurate and honest with your answers.

Here are examples of how Function Reports helped claimants receive their benefits:

  • A claimant filed for disability based on lumbar spinal stenosis. On her Function Report, the claimant stated that she couldn't lift her arms to wash her hair, nor could she bend to tie her shoes. She also reported that she was unable to stand for more than a few minutes at a time and so frequently made microwave meals that were quick and simple to prepare. Later, during her hearing, the ALJ asked the claimant to describe her typical day. The claimant responded that she awoke, made cereal for breakfast, and would rest on the sofa until her daughter arrived. Her daughter would then help her dress and, if needed, wash her hair. These statements were consistent with what the claimant reported in her Function Report. The ALJ concluded that the claimant's statements were credible and approved her claim.
  • A claimant filed for disability based on severe arthritis in his knees and shoulders and, as a result, also suffered from significant depression. On his Function Report, he stated that he used to enjoy riding horses and kept several at his property. He also reported that his pain and depression became so severe that he was unable to ride and care for the animals. As a result, he was forced to sell the horses. Social Security used this information to help determine his physical and mental limitations. Based on these limitations and other factors, Social Security concluded that the claimant did not have the mental or physical ability for full-time work.

How Is Consistency Important to a Disability Claim?

Social Security often uses Function Reports to determine whether claimants' statements about the limiting effects of their condition are accurate. ALJs frequently refer to answers on Function Reports during hearings. The way they do this is to ask the claimant a question about his or her ADLs, and then compare the answer to what the claimant originally reported on the Function Report. If the answer the claimant gives in the hearing is different than what was reported on the ADL, the judge will want to know why. If the ALJ thinks the claimant lied on the Function Report or is lying during the hearing, the claimant may lose his or her case.

Here are some examples of how the answers on a Function Report resulted in a denial of benefits:

  • A claimant filed for disability based on type 2 diabetes and diabetic neuropathy. In her activities of daily living report, she stated that she had difficulty concentrating because of pain related to neuropathy. The claimant also reported that she used to go to church but was no longer able to attend. However, at her hearing, when the ALJ asked her how she spent her days, she stated that the majority of her time was spent watching television. The ALJ then asked her if she was able to follow along with a full one-hour show and she answered yes. The ALJ also asked the claimant what she did to relax, and the claimant replied that she enjoyed singing in her church choir. Because the answers to the ALJ's questions were not consistent with how she described her ADLs on her Function Report, the ALJ decided the claimant was not credible and ultimately denied her claim.
  • A claimant applied for disability based on shoulder impingement syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. On his Function Report, the claimant stated he could no longer dress himself, pay bills, or prepare his own meals. However, during his hearing testimony, he stated that he was generally able to care for himself. After some more questioning, the ALJ determined that the claimant had exaggerated the answers on his function report and denied his claim.

For more information, see our article on the importance of credibility to a disability case.

How Do Make Sure I Provide Enough Detail in My Answers?

When you're completing the Function Report, try to think about how you're able to complete activities—the same as before your medical conditions started? Slower than before? Not at all? Can you complete the task, but you've had to change how you do it? Social Security needs to know those types of details, but oftentimes, you've become so accustomed to these small changes over time that you don't always remember to explain how things are different for you now.

Here are some example answers to some of the questions on the Disability Function Report, which might help give you a better idea of how to complete it.

Question 1: Do you take care of anyone else, such as wife/husband, children, or grandchildren?

  • Yes, my mom was diagnosed with cancer and has been sick from treatment, so she stays with me. She can take care of most things by herself, so I mostly just sit with her so she's not home alone.

This question can be a good opportunity for you to mention if you need help with things. For example: "No, I don't take care of anyone. Actually, I get help from my children, who cook and clean for me because cooking and cleaning causes sharp, stabbing pain across my low back."

Question 2: Do you take care of pets or other animals?

  • Yes, but my dog doesn't require much care. I just put a scoop of food in his dish and open the door for him to go outside. I can't take him on walks because I get short of breath from COPD if I walk more than five minutes.

Never just say "yes," without providing an explanation. Think of "yes" as "yes, but..."

Question 3: Do you prepare your own meals?

  • On a good day, I can make something simple, like a sandwich. On a bad day, my pain is so bad that I can't get out of bed, so my daughter brings food to me.

Always provide detail. If you just check the box that says "yes," but you don't explain, Social Security will assume you can cook every day without limitations.

Question 4: What were you able to do before your illnesses or injuries that you can't do now?

  • I used to be able to talk to anyone I met. Since my stroke, I'm embarrassed that I don't remember people or what they say to me, so I avoid it as much as possible.

OR

  • I used to like going fishing, but since my back injury, I can't get in or out of my boat, so I had to sell it.

Don't answer this question by just saying "everything" or "work." While they may be honest answers, they are very vague and don't provide any extra information to the person trying to make a decision on your application.

Question 5: Explain how your illness or injury affects your ability to do the following.

  • Dress – I wear sweatpants because I can't button jeans anymore.
  • Bathe – I need help getting in and out of the shower because I have trouble balancing.
  • Care for hair – I got my hair cut short because my shoulders hurt so much that I can't hold a hairbrush.
  • Feed self – Sometimes I don't eat because I'm so depressed that I can't bring myself to get out of bed.
  • Use the toilet – Because of irritable bowel syndrome, I can't always make it to the bathroom, so I have to use adult diapers.

Take each question seriously. Even if it's something embarrassing or something you don't think is that limiting, it's important to answer every question. Think of every blank line as your chance to give Social Security a specific example of how your medical conditions limit your ability to do certain activities.

Question 6: List household chores that you are able to do.

  • I load the dishwasher, but it takes me at least thirty minutes because I have to take a break every five minutes due to low back pain, which gets worse anytime I bend.

Don't just admit you can do tasks. If it is something you can do, but you have to do it differently than you used to, explain how and why.

Question 7: How do your illnesses, injuries, or conditions limit your ability to work?

  • I have fibromyalgia brain fog so I forget things quickly; I even need reminders to take my medication. My pain prevents me from lifting anything over 5 pounds. I can't stand longer than 10 minutes.

Social Security will evaluate your ability to work based on how long you're able to do certain activities, so it's important to tell them what that limit is. When you say "I can't sit for very long," everyone has a different idea of what "very long" is. Instead, say "I can't sit longer than 10 minutes before I get numbness in my toes."

Are There Ways to Fix Poor Answers on the Function Report?

When you go to your hearing, you can try to clarify your answers on the Function Report by providing more detail. For instance, if you checked the boxes on the Function Report that you could drive a car, walk, or use public transportation, but you actually have difficulty doing these things, explain the details to the judge. Here's an example of how a claimant provide more detail during a hearing:

  • A claimant filed for disability due to cervical and thoracic back pain. On her Function Report, the claimant stated that she had trouble going up and downstairs, but also stated she was able to do her own laundry, even though the laundry machine was in the basement of her home. The ALJ asked how the claimant was able to do this task in light of her condition, and, at first, doubted the claimant's statements about her symptoms. But the claimant explained that in order to carry the laundry down to the basement, she put her laundry in a small wastebasket, then sat on the steps with the basket in her lap and lowered herself down the steps one at a time. The claimant also testified that her washing machine and dryer were front-loading and that she sat on a stool to put the clothes in the machines. She also stated that her daughter frequently visited to help her take laundry back up the stairs. The ALJ accepted this explanation, and the claimant was approved.

If you've already completed your Function Report and think you wrote something that might look inconsistent, you should discuss your case with a disability attorney to see how you can clarify this information in a way that is both honest and helpful to your case.

As you're completing the Function Report, it may be helpful to imagine how an ALJ would view your answers (read our article about a disability case and how the judge assessed the claimant's credibility regarding ADLs). Function Reports can result in denials if there are inconsistencies.

Are There Other Paper Forms I'll Need to Submit?

After you submit your application, DDS may also ask you to complete other paper forms, such as:

  • Authorization to Disclose Information to the Social Security Administration, SSA-827
  • Work History Report, SSA-3369, or
  • Forms specific to your medical condition, such as a pain questionnaire, cardiac questionnaire, or pulmonary questionnaire.

It's important to complete all the forms that DDS sends to you because, if you don't return the completed forms, DDS can use that as a basis to deny your claim.

It's generally a good idea to keep copies of the forms you've returned to DDS because sometimes the completed forms get misplaced. So DDS often asks claimants to re-do the forms they've already submitted.

Juggling the paperwork can be stressful for claimants, so some claimants choose to work with a disability advocate or attorney to manage the paperwork for them. The advocate or attorney can communicate with DDS to make sure DDS has all of the information they need to make a decision about a claimant's application. For more information, see our article about filing Social Security forms.

Updated February 25. 2022

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