SSDI FAQs

What is the definition of disability used by Social Security?

Under the Social Security Act, “disability” means the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of no less than 12 months.”

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How many different types of Social Security disability benefits are there?

There are at least five major types of Social Security disability benefits.

  • Disability Insurance Benefits is the most important type of Social Security disability benefits. It goes to individuals who have worked in recent years (five out of the last 10 years in most cases) who are now disabled.
  • Disabled Widow’s and Widower’s Benefits are paid to individuals who are at least 50 and become disabled within a certain amount of time after the death of their husband or wife. The late husband or wife must have worked enough under Social Security to be insured.
  • Disabled Adult Child Benefits go to the children of persons who are deceased or who are drawing Social Security disability or retirement benefits. The child must have become disabled before age 22.

For Disability Insurance Benefits, Disabled Widow’s or Widower’s Benefits and Disabled Adult Child benefits, it does not matter whether the disabled individual is rich or poor. Benefits are paid based upon a Social Security earnings record.

Supplemental Security Income benefits, however, are paid to individuals who are poor and who are disabled. It does not matter for SSI whether an individual has worked in the past or not.
SSI child’s disability benefits are a variety of SSI benefits paid to children under the age of 18 who are disabled. The way in which disability is determined is a bit different for children.
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I am disabled, but I have not worked in a long time. Can I receive Social Security disability benefits?

If you are poor enough, you can qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if you are disabled, even if you have never worked in the past.

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How do I apply for Social Security disability benefits?

The best and surest way to file a Social Security disability claim is to go to the nearest Social Security office in person and wait to see someone to file the claim in person. Alternatively, a person may contact Social Security by telephone and arrange for a telephone interview to file the claim. You may also apply online at www.ssa.gov.

If your application for disability benefits is denied, you will receive a notice in the mail. Contact our Social Security disability attorneys immediately after receiving your denial notice for assistance with your appeal.

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I am disabled, but I have plenty of money in the bank. Do I have to wait until this money is gone before I apply for Social Security disability benefits?

No. If you have worked in recent years or if you are applying for Disabled Widow’s or Widower’s benefits, it does not matter how much money you have in the bank. There is no reason to wait to file the claim.

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How long do I have to wait after becoming disabled before I can file for Social Security disability benefits?

You can file for Social Security disability benefits on the very same day that you become disabled. Many individuals make the mistake of waiting months, and even years, after becoming disabled before filing a Social Security disability claim. There is no reason to file a Social Security disability claim if one has only a minor illness or one which is unlikely to last a year or more. However, an individual who suffers serious illness or injury and expects to be out of work for a year or more should not delay in filing a claim for Social Security disability benefits.

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I am still on sick leave from my employer. Can I file for Social Security disability now or do I have to wait until the sick leave is exhausted?

No, you do not have to wait until the sick leave is exhausted. You should file for Social Security disability benefits as soon as possible if you believe that you will be out of work for a year or more.

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I got hurt on the job and am drawing workers’ compensation benefits. Can I file a claim for Social Security disability benefits now or should I wait until the workers’ compensation ends?

You do not have to wait until the workers’ compensation ends, and you should not wait that long. An individual can file a claim for Social Security disability benefits while receiving workers’ compensation benefits. It is best to file the Social Security disability claim as soon as possible; otherwise, there may be a gap between the time the workers’ compensation ends and the Social Security disability benefits begin.

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Can I receive both workers’ compensation and Social Security disability benefits?

Yes. There is an offset, which reduces Social Security disability benefits because of workers’ compensation benefits paid, but in virtually all cases, there are still some Social Security disability benefits to be paid.

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How can I tell if I will be found disabled by Social Security?

Unless your disability is catastrophic (such as terminal cancer, a heart condition so bad that you are on a heart transplant waiting list, total paralysis of both legs, etc.), there is no easy way for you to tell whether you will be found disabled by Social Security. In the end, the decision of whether or not to apply for Social Security disability benefits should not be based upon whether or not the person feels that Social Security will find them disabled. An individual should make the decision about whether or not to file for Social Security disability based upon their own belief about their condition. If the individual feels that he or she is disabled and is not going to be able to return to work in the near future, the individual should file for Social Security disability benefits. If denied, the individual should consult with an attorney familiar with Social Security disability to get an opinion as to the chances of success on appeal.

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Can you receive Social Security disability benefits if you are affected by a debilitating disease?

In almost every case, no matter what the disease is, the answer is the same – “Maybe, it just depends upon how badly you are affected by the disease.” One example might be cancer. The word “cancer” is scary to anyone, but there are many cancers which can be treated and cured very quickly, with little or no lasting effect. On the other hand, of course, there are cancers which cause great suffering and ultimately death. The question in each individual case is “How sick is this particular individual with cancer and how long is this person going to remain sick?” Skin diseases are another example. The vast majority of skin diseases, while annoying, would not be considered to be disabling. On the other hand, there are some uncommon and very severe skin problems which are clearly disabling. Thus, almost without exception, the mere fact that an individual has a disease with a certain name does not guarantee that the individual either will or will not be found disabled. It all depends upon how sick the person is.

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Do you have to be permanently disabled to get Social Security disability benefits?

No. You have to have been disabled for at least one year, expect to be disabled for at least one year or have a condition that can be expected to result in death within one year.

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I have several health problems, but separately they do not cause me to be disabled. It is the combination of the health problems that makes me disabled. Can I receive Social Security disability benefits?

Social Security is supposed to consider the combination of impairments that an individual suffers in determining disability. Many claimants for Social Security disability benefits have more than one health problem and the combined effects of all of the health problems must be considered.

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I got hurt in an automobile accident. I am disabled now, but I expect that I will be able to return to work after I recover. Should I file for Social Security disability benefits?

If you expect to be out of work for a year or more on account of illness or injury, you should file for Social Security disability benefits.

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How does Social Security determine if I am disabled?

Social Security is supposed to gather your medical records and carefully consider all of your health problems, as well as your age, education, and work experience. In general, Social Security is supposed to decide whether you are able to do your past work. If Social Security decides that you are unable to do your past work, they are supposed to consider whether there is any other work which you can do considering your health problems and your age, education, and work experience.

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Who decides if I am disabled?

After an individual files a Social Security disability claim, the case is sent to a disability examiner at the Disability Determination agency. This individual, working with a doctor, makes the initial decision on the claim. If the claim is denied, you may request reconsideration and the case is then sent to another disability examiner at the Disability Determination agency, where it goes through much the same process. If a claim is denied at reconsideration, you may then request a hearing. At this point, the case is sent to an Administrative Law Judge who works for Social Security. The Administrative Law Judge makes an independent decision upon the claim. This is the only level at which the claimant and the decision maker get to see each other.

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Why does Social Security consider my age in determining whether I am disabled?

Social Security has to consider age because that is what the Social Security Act requires. As people get older, they become less adaptable, less able to switch to different jobs in order to cope with health problems. A severe foot injury which might cause a 30-year-old to change careers to work a job in which he or she can sit down most of the time, might disable a 60-year-old person who could not make the adjustment to a different type of work.

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Is there a list of illnesses that Social Security considers disabling?

Not really. Because most types of illnesses can vary from minor to severe, there is not a simple list of illnesses which Social Security considers to be disabling. However, if an illness has reached a very severe level with certain medical hallmarks, Social Security will award benefits on the basis of medical considerations alone.

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What can I do to improve my chances of winning my Social Security disability claim?

Be honest and complete in giving information to Social Security about what is disabling you. Many claimants, for instance, fail to mention their psychiatric problems to Social Security because they are embarrassed about them. In almost all cases, individuals who were slow learners in school fail to mention this fact to Social Security, even though it can have a good deal to do with whether or not the Social Security disability claim is approved. Beyond being honest and complete with Social Security, the most important thing that you can do is just keep appealing and hire an experienced person to represent you. It is important to appeal because most claims are denied at the initial level, but are approved at higher levels of review. It is important to hire an experienced person to represent you because you do not understand the way Social Security works. Statistically, claimants who employ an attorney to represent them are much more likely to win than those who go unrepresented.

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If I am approved for Social Security disability benefits, how much will I get?

For disability insurance benefits, it all depends upon how much you have worked and earned in the past. For disabled widow’s or widower’s benefits, it depends upon how much the late husband or wife worked and earned. For disabled adult child benefits, it all depends upon how much the parent worked and earned. For all types of SSI benefits, there is a base amount that an individual with no other income receives. Other income that an individual has reduces the amount of SSI which an individual can receive.

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How far back will they pay benefits if I am found disabled?

For Disability Insurance Benefits and for Disabled Widow’s and Widower’s Benefits, the benefits cannot begin until five months have passed after the person becomes disabled. In addition, benefits cannot be paid more than one year prior to the date of the claim. For a Disabled Adult Child, there is no five-month waiting period before benefits begin, but benefits cannot be paid more than six months prior to the date of the claim. SSI benefits cannot be paid prior to the start of the month following the date of the claim.

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What do I do if Social Security denies my claim for Social Security disability benefits?

First, do not be surprised. Only a small percentage of Social Security disability claims are approved at the initial level. If you are denied at the initial level, unless you have already returned to work or expect to return to work in the near future, then you should contact our office at 866-299-1769. If we can accept your case for representation, then our office will file an appeal on your behalf.

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Why does Social Security turn down so many claims for disability benefits?

There is no simple answer to this question. One reason is that there is no simple way to determine whether an individual is disabled. Most people who are disabled suffer from pain. There is no way of determining whether or not another individual is in pain, much less how much pain they are in. A second reason is that Social Security over the years has been more concerned with making sure that everyone who is receiving Social Security disability benefits is “truly” disabled than with making sure that everyone who is disabled receives Social Security disability benefits. An underlying reason is that Congress has always believed that, given a chance, many people will “fake” disability in order to get benefits.

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What is a “request for reconsideration”?

When a claim for Social Security disability benefits is denied at the initial level, the claimant usually must request “reconsideration” of that decision to start the appeal process. The case is then sent to a different disability examiner for a new decision. Unfortunately, about 80% of the time the reconsideration decision is the same as the initial decision – a denial.

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Who makes the reconsideration determination?

A disability examiner at the Disability Determination Section makes the reconsideration determination. Most of the time, the claimant does not see the disability examiner or even know his or her name.

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What are my chances of winning at reconsideration?

Statistically, about 20% of the time a claimant wins at reconsideration.

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Do I have to go through reconsideration?

In most states, including North Carolina, if you want to appeal a denial of Social Security disability benefits, you have to go through reconsideration. There is no way to avoid it. In a few states the Social Security Administration has abolished reconsideration and you can file an immediate request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.

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How long does it take to get a hearing on a Social Security disability claim?

There is some variation around the country, but the national average has been over 500 days – or approximately a year and a half.

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What is the Social Security hearing like?

The hearings are fairly informal. The only people likely to be there are the judge, a secretary operating a recorder and taking notes, the claimant, and the claimant’s attorney. In some cases, the Administrative Law Judge has a medical doctor or vocational expert present to testify at the hearing. There is no jury nor are there any spectators at the hearing.

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What are my chances of winning at a hearing?

Statistically, approximately half of the claimants who have a Social Security disability hearing win.

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If the Administrative Law Judge denies my claim, can I appeal?

Yes. You can appeal to the Appeals Council which is still within Social Security.

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What is the Appeals Council?

The Appeals Council exists to review Administrative Law Judge decisions. The Appeals Council is located in Falls Church, Virginia, and neither the claimant nor the attorney sees the people at the Appeals Council who are working on the case.

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Can I appeal a case beyond Social Security to the Federal Courts?

Yes. After being denied by the Appeals Council, it is possible for a claimant to file a civil action in the United States Federal District Court, requesting review of Social Security’s decision. A Social Security disability claim can go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Please note, however, that it is very rare for a case to go beyond.