The Importance of the ADL Form to Your Disability Case

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

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One of the ways the Social Security Administration (SSA) will evaluate your claim for disability is to look at how your condition affects your day-to-day life. When you apply for disability, the SSA will send you a form that asks you to describe your activities of daily living, or "ADLs." ADLs are those 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.

The Function Report

Sometimes Social Security reps refer to the form as the ADL questionnaire, but officially the SSA calls this form the Function Report, SSA-3373. Here are some examples of the types of questions that appear on the function report.

  • Do you cook your own food? How long does it take you? What do you cook?
  • Do you spend time with others?
  • What are your hobbies? How often do you do them?
  • Do you go places on a regular basis?
  • Do you get along well with others?
  • Do you need help caring for others or pets?
  • Do you need help with bathing, getting dressed, or feeding yourself?
  • Do you cook? How often? How long does it take you?
  • Are there things you used to do that your disability now stops you from doing?

Why the Function Report Is 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. The SSA, including the judges who hear appeals, use the answers on the form to determine how well you function, 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 (disability applicants) win their claims.

  • 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 administrative law judge (ALJ) asked the claimant to describe her typical day. The claimant responded that she awoke, and 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. However, he also reported that his pain and depression became so severe that he was unable to ride and to care for the animals. As a result, he was forced to sell the horses. The SSA used this information to help determine his physical and mental limitations. Based on these limitations and other factors, the SSA concluded that the claimant did not have the mental or physical capacity for full-time work.

The Importance of Consistency

The SSA 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 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 the 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 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. 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.

Updating Your Function Report

It is important to keep your function report up to date. It is not unusual for a person's ADLs to be affected as his or her medical condition progresses. If your condition changes significantly and you have more trouble doing daily activities, file a new function report with the SSA.

Clarifying Damaging Answers on Function Reports

Sometimes a claimant's answers on the function report seem to indicate that the claimant can do more than he or she can actually do, but that's because they don't tell the whole story. In these cases, it is important that the claimant explain answers that seem to hurt his or her claim for disability. Here are some examples.

  • A claimant filed for disability due to cervical and thoracic back pain. On her function report, the claimant stated that she was able to do her own laundry. She also stated that her 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. However, the claimant explained that in order to carry laundry the laundry down to the basement, she put her laundry in a small waste basket, 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.
  • A claimant filed for disability based on chronic heart failure, diabetes mellitus, and mild emphysema. In his function report, the claimant stated he lived with his elderly father and provided care for him. During the hearing, the ALJ questioned the claimant about how he was able to care for his father if he was disabled. The claimant then explained that his father had in-home nursing care two hours a day, and that the claimant's sister came daily to prepare meals for him and his father. The claimant also explained that he cared for his father by paying bills, scheduling doctors' appointments, and making sure his father took his medications. The ALJ accepted this explanation and approved his claim.

Before your appeal hearing, go over your function report (you can ask the SSA for a copy if you don't have it), and imagine how a judge would view your answers (Read our article on a recent court case to see how a judge assessed a claimant's credibility regarding activities of daily living). Function reports can result in denials if there are inconsistencies. If you feel you wrote something in your function report that could hurt your case, you should discuss your case with a disability attorney to see how you can clarify this information at your hearing in a way that is both honest and helpful to your case.

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