*Disclaimer- The following post is based on my experiences with Social Security Disability applications. In no way do I claim to be an expert in Social Security. The following information is to be viewed as a guide from my experiences only, and not intended to be a sure fire way to obtain disability benefits.*
People always want to know, “What is the key to getting approved for social security disability (SSDI)?” Well, in my experience, there isn’t a simple solution. Prior to my own disability becoming so severe that I myself needed to apply, I worked as a case manager for individuals with mental health needs in the community. I have spent countless hours assisting others with their SSDI applications prior to completing my own. I have supported so many people through the heartrenching process of being denied over and over again for the benefits for which they both needed and qualified. It’s not an easy process, and it can create added stress, and mental and physical pain to someone who is desperately seeking some sort of financial relief. While there is no fool proof answer to this problem, there are strategies that can help lessen the burden and improve your chances of a timely decision.
1) Obtain all medical records personally and attach them to your application.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) will request all of your records from your providers, but it will be left up to the doctor’s office to provide those records. This can be a time consuming process, and sometimes medical providers do not respond. If that is the case, the SSA will make a decision without obtaining the records. By providing the records yourself you can have peace of mind knowing they have been received. Furthermore, obtain and provide records for any follow up appointments or new provider appointments you may have during the application review process to ensure the SSA remains updated on your most current medical concerns and needs.
2) Make yourself sound as sick as possible.
In no way should you be dishonest about your abilities/disabilities on your application. That would be fraud! However, it can be difficult to know just how to answer the questions in the application. If you are like me, or many of my former clients, you may have good days and bad days. On good days, you may be able to do more than you can on days when you have a flare or decompensation in functioning. When answering the functional questions, answer them as if it were the worst day you’ve had. Think to when you are in a full blown flair. What does that look like? How do you feel during those times? What can you do and what can’t you do? If you think about it in this manner, it makes completing some of the functional assessments easier.
3) Ask family and friends to help.
When I completed my application I asked my husband his opinion on many of the questions. He was able to give a more objective answer about my ability to perform certain tasks, how my disease affects my mental health, and my overall functioning. Sometimes when we live it we don’t realize all of the ways our disability affects us, and it is good to get an outsider’s point of view. Ask your family and close friends to submit a statement or complete a functional assessment questionnaire on your behalf to provide another viewpoint of how your disability affects you. This was extremely beneficial in my application. I recommend having them complete a questionnaire without your input and then reading it later to see in which ways it was similar or differed from your own. My husband was able to add insights that I had not thought of in his questionnaire which, I believe, helped my case. Having slightly different information is OK. It shows the SSA that your loved one completed it on his/her own, and it provides multiple viewpoints.
4) Hire the right attorney.
If you choose to hire an attorney make sure you do your homework first. You want someone who has a history of successfully obtaining SSDI for individuals. You want to find someone who specializes in SSDI. I would also recommend hiring someone local who you can see face to face. There are many attorneys out there that offer SSDI services from multiple states away. They claim to be experts in the field with great track records. This could be true in many cases, but in my experience it was the worst decision I made.
I hired an attorney through the use of a SSDI support organization, and my attorney was states away from me. Furthermore, I only spoke to my actual attorney once, and that was only because I had so many problems with the attorney’s representative who was actually handling my case. She did not understand my disability or my needs, and it greatly hindered my application process. I ended up doing almost everything on my own and they still got paid anyway. I feel I would have been better off doing it all on my own; however, I would highly recommend hiring an attorney, especially if you are having trouble getting the SSA to understand your needs. Just do your homework first!
5) Apply as soon as you know you can no longer work.
When it comes to the time you know you can no longer work due to your disability you need to apply. On your application, state your last day of employment. Typically, the SSA requires that you be unable to work for at least a year prior to approving your application. This can make the application process a little longer, but it is worth it in the end. You will receive back pay for each month you were in the application process from the six month point that you were unable to work to present once you are approved.
6) Never, Never, NEVER let your application laps.
Social Security will pay you back pay all the way back to six months after the date they determined you became disabled. Therefore, if your application takes two or three years then you will receive a rather substantial sum of money upon approval. (Minus 25% or $6000, whichever is less, that will go to your attorney if you choose to hire one.) However, if you are denied and you do not appeal the decision prior to the due date you will be required to complete an entirely new application. If that happens, you risk losing your back pay up to that point. Always, always, always file your appeals swiftly to ensure no further interruptions in your application process.
7) Keep accurate records of everything you send and receive from the SSA and/or your attorney.
It is extremely important to keep record of all correspondence between yourself and the SSA, as well as your attorney. In the process of applying for SSDI, it never fails that information “was never received” by the SSA. By keeping accurate records you can reference the date the information was sent and to whom it was sent, and re-send it when necessary. Keeping accurate records also gives you peace of mind knowing what has been sent in and what needs to still be done. The process of applying for SSDI is lengthy and requires a lot of paperwork. The more organized you are the easier it will be to know what you need to do next. It also helps you reference material when answering questions from the SSA.
8) Try not to get overwhelmed.
Applying for SSDI is a frustrating, stressful, overwhelming time in your life. The paperwork alone can be extremely overwhelming. Take it one step at a time. It is a marathon, not a sprint; regardless of how much we wish it were the opposite. If paperwork is becoming too overwhelming, put it down and pick it back up another day. Take one question at a time and try not to think about everything you have to do all at once. This was a tough one for me because I don’t like to wait and I hate the unknown. Have faith it will all come together.
9) Don’t allow denials to get you down.
It is common belief that “Everyone gets denied the first time.” In my experience, I would have to say that statement is true for at least 90% of the cases I’ve dealt with personally. Even if your disability is extremely severe it is likely you will be denied the first time. Don’t let the denials discourage you. If you dwell on your denial, or the length of time it takes for your application to be approved, you can actually worsen your symptoms. Stress is a common aggravating factor for many disabilities. Whether you experience mental or physical disabilities, stress and worry can increase your symptoms. Make sure you have other things to do to keep yourself occupied during the application process. Many people will blog, engage with social media support groups, take up a hobby, do light exercise and/or lean on their loved ones for support. Be creative to find ways to calm your mind during this time.
10) CELEBRATE! 🎉
When that letter finally arrives stating you have indeed been approved, Celebrate! You’ve gone through a lot to get to this point and your accomplishments should be celebrated. Do you have to throw a party? No, but you sure can if you want. However you choose to celebrate your achievements is up to you, but make sure to do something special for yourself. Whether that be going out to eat, making your favorite meal, blogging or posting about it on social media, or just simply taking a long sigh of relief, make sure you fully take in the moment. Of course your journey is not over. You will still have regularly scheduled recertifications to complete, but the most difficult part is behind you. You can rest easy knowing your finances became a bit more stable, and you may even be able to take some of that back pay to buy a new outfit, or something you’ve had your eye on for a while that you couldn’t afford. Or, you could be responsible and pay off some bills if you really want to.