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6 tips on filing for Social Security disability benefits
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6 tips on filing for Social Security disability benefits

Today, I'm going to provide some tips for people who are considering filing for Social Security disability benefits. About two years ago, I ran a column similar to this one. Because I get so many questions about this issue, I decided it was time to dust it off and update it. But first, I need to provide some general information about the disability program.

Disability benefits were added to the Social Security program in 1956. A separate funding structure was established to pay for them. A small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax (currently 0.9 percent) is earmarked to fund the disability program. Those monies are collected and disbursed from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund that is managed separately from the retirement fund, known as the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund.

Many people mistakenly confuse Social Security disability with Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability. They are totally different government programs. SSI, which began in 1973, is a welfare benefit payable to people with low income and assets. It is funded by general income tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. Both programs just happen to be run by the same agency: the Social Security Administration. It doesn't help that SSA refers to one as Social Security disability insurance and to the other as Supplemental Security Income disability!

For both programs, the law defines disability this way: It says that in order to qualify for benefits, you must have an impairment that is so severe that it is expected to keep you from doing ANY kind of work for at least 12 months. Or the condition must be so bad that it is considered terminal.

Throughout the insurance and pension industry, that is known as a very strict definition of disability. Despite all the rumors that exist about deadbeats and fakers on the Social Security disability dole, the opposite is more often the case: There are lots of people who would be considered disabled and eligible for many other government and private disability plans who do not qualify for Social Security disability payments.

Eligibility for Social Security is also restricted because of the work and tax-paying requirement. As a general rule, a person must have worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to qualify for Social Security disability. And some of that work must be recent. The law specifically says you must have worked and paid taxes in five of the last 10 years. (Those work and tax-paying rules are less stringent for younger workers who become disabled.)

If you don't meet this insured status requirement, meaning you haven't worked and paid taxes long enough to qualify for Social Security, you might be eligible for SSI disability benefits if you are poor. How poor you need to be varies from state to state.

And one final quick background point: If you are over 66, you are not eligible for disability benefits. Or to put that another way, once you reach that age, there would be no difference between a Social Security disability payment and a retirement benefit.

So if you have an impairment that keeps you from working and you meet the insured status requirement for Social Security disability or the poverty requirement for SSI disability, here are some tips that will help you when you want to file a claim.

Tip 1 — You can begin the filing process online at the Social Security Administration website: Just click on "apply online for disability benefits" right on the home page. Or you could call them at 800-772-1213 and make an appointment to file in person at a Social Security office. You also have the option of filing your claim over the phone.

Tip 2 — One of the first questions on the disability application form essentially asks this: "What is wrong with you and how does this impairment prevent you from working?" Answer this question as thoroughly as possible. The inability to work (not just the impairment itself) is the key to qualifying for benefits. You should describe in as much detail as possible how your impairment (or impairments — see Tip 3) impact your ability to do your job.

Tip 3 — List all the physical and mental problems you have, no matter how insignificant they seem. Don't simply write down the condition that you consider your primary disability. It is frequently a combination of disabilities that qualifies someone for benefits.

Tip 4 — There is a big section of the disability questionnaire that seeks information about your medical sources. Thoroughly list the names, addresses, phone numbers, websites, etc. for all the doctors, hospitals, clinics and other professionals who have treated you. The government needs medical records to help them decide if your condition is severe enough to qualify for benefits. And, of course, they get those records from the people you list on the application form. I can tell you from experience that nothing slows up a disability claim more than the inability to get records from medical sources.

Tip 5 — Frequently, Social Security needs more information than they can glean from your medical records to help decide if you are disabled. If they set you up for a medical examination with a Social Security doctor, don't miss that appointment.

Tip 6 — The Social Security Administration actually contracts with a state agency (it is called the Disability Determination Service in most states) to make disability decisions. Shortly after you file, your claim will be sent to your state DDS. Call SSA and get the DDS phone number and then call them to find out the name of the analyst who has been assigned to your case. Make that person your new best friend! This is the person who is going to decide if you are disabled or not.