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9 Common Misconceptions about Social Security Disability Benefits

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Disability—whether physical or mental and regardless of cause—can affect anyone.

In fact, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), nearly 3 out of every 10 of today’s 20-year-olds—even those in perfect health—will become disabled before they reach age 67, which will be their Social Security Normal Retirement Age. Currently, some 50 million people in the U.S. have some form of physical or mental disability, according to census data. The longer you live, the greater the chances are that, on or off the job, you will become disabled, too.

If you are already disabled, are too young to qualify for retirement Social Security benefits, and have earned enough work credits under the Social Security system while self-employed or working for others, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Whether or not you collect all the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits you’re entitled to—which could add up to tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years—may depend on how well you understand the SSDI system and on how you go about applying for your benefits.

Here are:

9 Common Misconceptions About Social Security Disability Benefits

Misconception #1:
“The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is too complicated. So I’m not even going to apply, although I’m truly disabled.”

Fact: Social Security Disability law is not complicated, but it is foreign to anyone who does not work with it frequently, so that it can be overwhelming. There are certain law firms that focus on representing people in their SSDI claims. These firms, which have handled a lot of SSDI claims, bring you expertise that an attorney can’t learn just by reading a book or two; so when you hire an attorney, be sure to get legal representation with an SSDI track record. One of these SSDI-experienced attorneys can explain everything and shepherd your claim or appeal through the whole process.

Misconception #2:
“The SSDI benefit payments aren’t very big. So why bother to apply for them?”

Fact: In January 2013, the average monthly SSDI benefit for a disabled worker with a spouse under age 65 or at least one child was $1,919. That’s $23,000 a year! That adds up to more than $230,000 over a 10-year period—a life-saver if the disability continues and there’s little or no other money coming in. All disabled workers (including those with and without families) averaged a $1,132 monthly benefit for themselves. That’s over $135,000 in a ten-year period. Neither of these figures includes cost-of-living increases given in many years. But regardless of the payment amount you may receive, if it’s money you’re entitled to, why not claim it?

Misconception #3:
“I can collect SSDI benefits if I’m disabled and unable to work for a short period of time.”

Wrong! In order to qualify for SSDI benefits, your disability—whether physical or mental or both—must be severe enough to keep you from performing substantial work for at least 12 months or is expected to result in death.

If you’ve been disabled for a year or more, or your doctors say you likely will be, you should apply for SSDI benefits now. Then, if your claim is approved, you’ll receive back benefits for the months you were unable to work beginning with the sixth full calendar month of disability, and you’ll continue to receive benefits for as long as you’re disabled. However, if you’re unexpectedly able to return to work sooner than 12 months, you may be asked to return the payments.

Misconception #4:
“All I need to apply for benefits is a note from my doctor saying that I’m disabled.”

False! It’s wise to get your doctor’s opinion, of course; but you’ll need a lot more than that to qualify for any SSDI benefits. Evidence needed for your claim includes your work history and your medical records pertaining to your disability, including test results and medications. After these are submitted, your claim will then undergo a thorough review by the Disability Determination Services (DDS) of your state.

Misconception #5:
“It won’t take long to get approved, since I’m obviously disabled. I’ll apply as soon as I get around to it.”

Bad idea! Typically, it will take from three to five months to get a decision on your claim (except for some extremely severe disabilities such as spinal cord injuries or terminal cancer that are fast-tracked). Then, when your claim is approved, figure another month or two until you actually receive your first benefit payment. Of course, if your claim is turned down and you apply again or file an appeal, it will take even longer.

To remedy a severe backlog situation, the SSA implemented a process called Quick Disability Determination (QDD). According to the SSA, it analyzes specific elements of data within each electronic claims file “to identify claims where there is a high potential that the claimant is disabled and where evidence of the person’s allegations can be quickly and easily obtained.” But the sooner you apply, the better, because your claim characteristics may not qualify QDD processing.

Misconception #6:
“The system is rigged to disqualify as many people as possible from collecting benefits, in order to save money.”

False. The government is looking for ways to keep Social Security funded, but this does not affect how claims are processed. People who are truly disabled according to Social Security’s rules will be approved it they present their cases clearly. Of course, some people are denied either by mistake and get approved on appeal or are denied because they do not meet the disability requirements. That said, at the end of the third quarter of 2012, 8,786,049 disabled workers were receiving Social Security Disability benefits.

Misconception #7:
“Even if I’m approved, I won’t receive any benefits in the years ahead because the Social Security system is practically broke.”

Fact: The Social Security Board of Trustees’ 2012 projections are that in 2033 (21 years in the future) there will be only enough money available to pay out 75% of scheduled benefits. Several solutions are being sought by the President and Congress, and it’s likely that additional funding will be found long before then. Therefore, if you’re eligible, apply for benefits now. And don’t worry about it for another 20 years.

Misconception #8:
“I don’t have to be concerned about SSDI benefits because my employer offers long-term disability insurance to every employee. Besides, my occupation is not considered hazardous.”

Be concerned. As noted earlier, statistics show that nearly 3 in 10 of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67—even if they’re not in an occupation that is considered hazardous. Disability can result from an off-the-job accident or from a wide variety of illnesses, not only from work-related injuries. And what if you become disabled, but your company’s plan pays benefits that are too small for your needs? Or they discontinue the plan? Or you change companies? Additionally, nearly all employer-sponsored short-term and long-term disability plans require application for Social Security Disability as a condition of receiving benefits from the employer plan, which is designed to supplement Social Security.

Misconception #9:
“If I need help filing a claim for SSDI benefits or with appealing a denial, I’ll go to my regular attorney. He’s a jack-of-all-trades.”

Bad idea. Relatively few attorneys have the special training and the years of hands-on experience needed to file SSDI claims accurately and completely or to effectively argue an SSDI appeal in an administrative hearing or federal court. You need a law firm with substantial experience with SSDI claims.

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