How to File a Disability Claim: Everything You Need to Know

Did you know that you have a 25% chance of becoming disabled before you reach retirement age?

Experts estimate that one in four of today’s 20-something-year-olds will be out of work for at least a year (at some point in their careers) because of a disabling condition. Those who develop cancer, musculoskeletal disorders, or other serious conditions may face the reality of long-term disability.

If you find yourself in this situation, you need to file a disability claim — and the sooner, the better. 

Of course, this is easier said than done. With the dizzying array of information available online, you may not even know where to begin. 

From hiring a disability lawyer to the final steps of the claim filing process, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for your easy-to-understand guide to filing a disability claim.

How to File a Disability Claim

Let’s start with a simple step-by-step guide to help you understand the disability claim filing process. You might not need to complete every step or do them in this exact order, but this will give you an overview of what’s involved.

1. Learn About Disability Benefits

If you haven’t already done so, educate yourself about the different disability benefits that you might qualify for.

Most benefits are divided into two categories: short-term and long-term. Short-term policies last anywhere from a few months to a year, although some may stretch to two years. Long-term policies provide benefits for many years and/or until your disability ends.

In terms of government benefits, the two federal programs are:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Social Security Disability Insurance is available to people who are (or have been) in the workforce and become disabled. Supplemental Security Income is not based on work history but rather on financial need.

To qualify for either type of federal disability benefits, you’ll need to have one of the qualifying impairments outlined by the SSA.

If your disability started while you were employed, you may also qualify for disability benefits through your employer. If you’re a veteran, you might qualify for benefits through the VA (Veteran’s Affairs).

2. Speak With a Disability Lawyer

At a hearing level, you have a 47% chance of getting your disability claim approved. With a disability lawyer at your side, your chance of winning goes up to 75%.

Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of trying to do everything themselves. They only think about contacting a lawyer after their claim gets denied. Not only does this prolong the process, but you have more obstacles to overcome during the appeal.

The best time to contact a disability lawyer is right now — before you file a disability claim. They’ll review the details of your case and help you gather disability claim documents (which can seem both lengthy and endless).

Most importantly, a disability attorney will help you to understand both SSD and SSI and which benefits you’re most likely to qualify for. They’ll also help you to deal with the SSA from the start — not only after your benefits were denied.

They can also walk you through other options you may not have been aware of, such as an employer or state-sponsored disability benefits.

3. Prepare for Your Disability Interview

When you file your SSD or SSI claim, the first step is a telephone or in-person interview with a claims representative. Understandably, this can seem a little daunting, but you’ll feel less anxious by knowing what to expect during the interview.

Assuming you’re attending the interview in person, make sure to bring your photo ID and all disability claim documents (more on those in a moment). You’ll provide basic facts about yourself, such as your social security number, current address, and your parents’ full names.

After that, the claims representative will ask a series of questions related to your:

  • Medical conditions
  • Medical providers & treatment sources
  • Current medications
  • Diagnostic tests
  • Employment history

Be sure to list all sources of treatment (doctors, clinics, hospitals) back to the time when your disability first began. Include full names, addresses, and phone numbers to facilitate contact. The sooner Social Security can obtain your medical records, the sooner you can get approved and start receiving your benefits.

For your work history, you’ll want to include all jobs you’ve had for the past 15 years. Include detailed descriptions of your duties in each role. The SSA will use this information to evaluate your abilities to continue working (or perform other types of work within the scope of your disability).

If you’re applying for SSI, be prepared to answer detailed questions about your income and assets. It’s helpful to bring bank and insurance documents as well as information about your home, vehicles, and other financial resources.

4. Gather Your Own Medical Records

This step is optional, but it’s a good way to speed up the application process. When you provide your treatment sources when you file a disability claim, the SSA will contact each source for your medical records.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Sadly, it’s not uncommon for several weeks to several months to go by before they can obtain all the records they need. Until they have this information, they can’t even begin working on your case.

To expedite the process, gather your records and have them ready to submit during your interview. You’ll want every record from every source of treatment back to the time when your disability began. This will help to prove the earliest possible onset date so you can receive the maximum amount of back pay.

At the same time, you need to be able to prove that your disability is a current, ongoing problem. For this reason, you’ll also need medical records that are “recent,” which means no older than 90 days.

Feeling overwhelmed by the thought of collecting your records? This is one more reason why you’ll want a disability lawyer on your side. They’ll help you get the medical records you need while ensuring anything confidential remains that way.

5. Get a “Proper” Statement From Your Doctor

You won’t win a Social Security Disability case simply because you have a specific medical condition. Rather, you’ll win or lose your case based on the extent to which you’re “limited” by your physical or mental condition.

Your doctor understands what’s wrong with you and bases their treatment on your symptoms. But do they know the full extent of how your condition affects you (and, specifically, your ability to work)? Have you discussed your remaining functional capacity in detail, including the things you can and cannot do?

Most importantly, have these discussions and details been documented?

In most cases, the answer is no. The majority of doctors do not make references to any physical or mental limitations in their treatment notes. Ironically, this is the exact information that the SSA will look for: evidence of your specific limitations.

Social Security gives special consideration (also known as “controlling authority”) to your treating physician’s professional opinion. Make sure your doctor has rated and documented your functional limitations, such as your ability to walk, stand, reach, lift, and carry.

6. Prepare Your Disability Claim Documents

With this initial homework completed, it’s time to gather and fill out your disability claim documents. 

The first form will be your own statement. This includes your basic details as well as your work history, the nature and extent of your disability, and any additional sources of income.

Next, you’ll need your attending physician’s statement, as outlined in the previous step. It should include:

  • Your diagnosis
  • Your medical history
  • Any treatment you’ve received or are currently receiving
  • The level of your impairment (physically and mentally)
  • If and when the doctor believes you’ll be well enough to return to work

Finally, you’ll need a statement from your employer. It should describe your role and duties, your salary, and how your disability has affected your ability to do your job. This could take the form of a checklist of tasks you can no longer perform or the wages you’ve lost due to your disability.

If you’ve already filed for workers’ compensation or other employer-sponsored disability coverage, make sure your employer includes those details in their statement.

Claim Filing Process: Do’s & Don’ts

Congratulations — you’re almost ready to file a disability claim and start getting the benefits you need. Before you schedule your interview, though, make sure to tick these final items off your to-do list.

DO Get Started ASAP

It’s in your best interests to file a disability claim as soon as possible. The most obvious reason is to start receiving your benefits sooner, but this isn’t the only one.

Depending on your state, you may face a claim filing deadline as short as 60 days. This means that if you haven’t reported an injury or diagnosis that affects your ability to work within this time frame, your claim could be denied.

Also, the longer you wait to file, the lower your monthly payment might be when your claim gets approved. Back payments extend a maximum of 12 months from the time of approval. And it can take months to get approved — especially if you get denied first and have to go through the appeal process.

DON’T Post Anything on Social Media

When you file a disability claim, you’d better believe that the evaluator is going to go online and search through your social media profiles. If you say you can’t work due to a back injury but your Instagram is full of photos of you kite-surfing, that’s a one-way ticket to a denied claim.

Remember, insurance companies will build a “history of behavior” based on your social media activity. They’ll look for anything that could potentially invalidate your claim. Even something minor, like picking up your child or throwing a ball for your dog, could make you seem less injured than you really are.

Your best bet is to stay off social media for a while after you file your claim. Update your privacy settings to limit access to older posts. Let your friends and family know not to tag you in any of their posts or accept follow requests from unknown persons (that applies to you too).

Most importantly, never post anything about your disability claim on social media.

DO Include All Symptoms & Conditions

Very few people win a disability case based on a single condition. Usually, it’s a composite of several conditions (both physical and mental) that lead to case approval.

For example, the main reason for filing your claim could be a physical condition like arthritis or degenerative disc disease. But if you mention that you’re also struggling with depression or bipolar disorder, that condition could be the thing that actually awards you benefits.

Even if doesn’t seem directly related, be sure to list any medical conditions you’ve been diagnosed with or are receiving treatment for. One additional detail could make the difference between winning or losing your case.

DON’T Minimize Your Pain

Your willingness to admit or talk about pain depends on your personality, upbringing, and even your culture. Perhaps you tend to be the strong, silent type who sloughs off any pain or discomfort.

Even if you don’t normally talk about it with others, you don’t want to minimize your pain or symptoms on your disability claim. Avoid making statements like, “It’s not too bad,” or “I’ve learned to live with it.”

Unfortunately, these statements and actions can be used against you to deny your claim. Be completely honest with your doctor and in your claim documents, especially if you’re sent for a consultative examination to evaluate your symptoms.

Hiring a Disability Lawyer for Your Claim

The process to file a disability claim is confusing and challenging. As we’ve discussed, it can take many months to gather the disability claims documents you need and go through the claim filing process. 

Although you may be able to do some of it on your own, you’ll have a much better chance of success with a disability lawyer on your side.

Don’t leave your fate to chance. Our team at Sweet Law includes many experienced Social Security disability lawyers who are ready to help you fight for your rights. 

Call our office at 1-800-674-7854 or fill out our online contact form to schedule your free consultation. Remember, you won’t pay anything unless we win your case!

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