Notice and Paperwork Requirements When Taking FMLA Leave for Your Disability

How to submit FMLA paperwork and medical certification when you need FMLA medical or disability-related leave.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 2/24/2023

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lets you take time off work for a serious health condition, including most disabilities and medical conditions that:

  • cause incapacity or the inability to work
  • require certain types of treatment, or
  • require inpatient care.

You can also use FMLA leave to take care of family members with serious health problems. Under FMLA, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave every 12 months.

To exercise your rights under the FMLA, you must give your employer notice as required by the law. You might also have to submit certain forms to your employer, including a medical certification. This article will discuss the documentation you need and how to fill out and submit the required FMLA paperwork.

Giving Notice Under the FMLA

There are two sets of rules for giving notice under the FMLA for medical or disability-related leave:

  • one set of rules for leave that is foreseeable (predictable or expected), and
  • one set of rules for unforeseeable (unexpected or unpredictable) leave.

If You Need Medical or Family Leave for a Foreseeable Reason

If you know you'll need leave at a certain time, you must give your employer notice at least 30 days in advance. For example, if you have planned surgery or treatment well ahead of time, you're required to give 30 days' notice.

Of course, even if you know you'll need FMLA leave, the timing of your leave might change for reasons that are out of your control. You're required to give as much notice as practical if you can't give your employers exact dates. For example, you can give less then 30 days' notice if:

  • You have a medical emergency (for instance, you have an operation scheduled in several months, but your condition suddenly worsens and you need surgery right away).
  • You know you're going to need leave, but you don't know when you'll need it. If, for example, you're awaiting an organ transplant, you won't know exactly when your surgery will take place.
  • Circumstances have changed. Your doctor reschedules your treatment, so the dates of your leave will change.

If You Need Medical or Family Leave for an Unforeseeable Reason

If you suddenly need FMLA leave—for example, you're hurt in a car crash or diagnosed with cancer requiring immediate treatment—the 30-day notice rule doesn't apply. Instead, you must give notice as soon as possible, typically the same day or the next work day after you learn that you need time off.

What Documentation Do You Need for FMLA Leave?

You can give notice of FMLA leave in any of the following ways:

  • by letter or email
  • by fax
  • by phone, or
  • in person.

Although it's not required by law, it's best to put your notice in writing to avoid any misunderstandings later. Plus, putting your FMLA leave notice in writing ensures you have proof of your request and when you made it. And your employer might require you to complete specific FMLA paperwork.

Your employer might also require medical certification (see below) if you're requesting FMLA leave for any of the following:

  • your own serious medical condition (including pregnancy and childbirth)
  • planned medical procedures (like a scheduled surgery), or
  • a family member's serious medical condition or procedure.

Who Can Fill Out FMLA Paperwork?

Generally, you must complete any FMLA request paperwork your employer requires. But if you can't give notice for yourself or can't fill out forms (because you're unconscious, for instance), a relative or other spokesperson can do it for you.

If you're required to submit medical certification, your doctor will need to complete the appropriate paperwork.

FMLA Medical Certification Requirements

When you use the FMLA to take time off for a serious health condition (or to care for a family member), your employer can ask you to provide medical certification. You and your doctor or other health care provider must provide paperwork (a form or letter) that gives some information about your or your family member's condition, including when you're expected to be able to return to work.

What a Medical Certification Can Include

You don't have to share your diagnosis with your employer, but your FMLA medical certification must include some specific information, like:

  • whether it's you who's unable to work or it's a family member who needs your care due to a serious health condition
  • information about the health care provider (including contact information)
  • when the serious health condition began
  • how long the health condition is expected to last
  • whether you need continuous leave (covering a single time period) or intermittent leave (along with how long and how many breaks you might need), and
  • when you expect to return to work (or when your intermittent leave will end).

How Do You Fill Out a Medical Certification?

If you have to complete a certification form, your employer will notify you and should give you a copy of the form. The United States Department of Labor offers two optional forms you or your employer can download and use for FMLA medical documentation, depending on why you need the leave:

Complete your section of the form and then get your health care provider to complete the rest. You'll need to return the form to your employer within 15 days unless it isn't practical to do so. For example, if your doctor is on vacation or loses your paperwork despite your best efforts, you should have more time.

What Happens After You Complete the Medical Certification?

Your employer can request additional information if your medical certification is incomplete. If your employer notifies you that there's necessary information missing from your certification, you'll have seven calendar days to provide the missing information.

Once you provide this medical certification, your employer can contact your health care provider for either of the following purposes:

  • to verify the information on the form, or
  • to clarify the information.

Your employer also has the right to ask you to get a second opinion from a different health care provider. If that happens, your employer will choose the doctor and must pay for the consultation. Your employer can also require a third opinion (if the first and second opinions differ from each other). But again, your employer must cover the cost.

FMLA Notice If You're Using Sick or Vacation Time

FMLA leave is normally unpaid time off. But under the law, you can use any of the following accrued time off to get paid during your FMLA leave:

  • sick time
  • vacation days, or
  • other paid time off (PTO).

But you can use your paid time off only for reasons covered by your employer's leave policies. For example, you generally can't use sick leave to get paid during FMLA leave to care for a seriously ill family member—unless your employer's policy allows employees to use sick time for this purpose.

When you use your paid time off, you must follow all of your employer's rules regarding:

  • when you must give notice, and
  • how you give notice (including submitting any required forms).

For example, if your employer's vacation policy requires employees to give two weeks' notice before taking time off, you'll need to give that much notice. And if you must fill out a PTO request form and submit it to HR, then you'll need to do that too.

If you have a medical emergency, you're still entitled to use your accrued paid time off or sick time for FMLA leave—as long as you give as much notice as you can. But if your employer requires two weeks' notice before vacations, you might have to wait two weeks from the date you notify your employer of your need for FMLA leave before you can draw vacation pay for that time off.

When to Talk to an FMLA Lawyer

Most FMLA leave requests can be handled smoothly as long as you do your part and provide the proper notice and documentation. But when you run into a problem with your employer, an employment lawyer can help you assert your rights and negotiate the time off you need. It makes sense to talk to a lawyer if:

  • your employer is challenging your right to take time off
  • you believe your employer has improperly denied your request for FMLA leave, or
  • your employer retaliates when you return to work after FMLA leave (by demoting you or cutting your hours, for instance).

If your employer won't meet its legal obligations, a lawyer can help you assess your options and come up with the best strategy going forward, whether that's trying to settle your claims or filing a lawsuit in court. Learn more about enforcing your rights under the FMLA.

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