Applying for Disability Benefits

In past columns, I have encouraged people who qualify to learn about and apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. The Social Security Administration has a strict definition of who is disabled. You must have an impairment severe enough to prevent you from doing substantial work, and that condition must have lasted (or must be expected to last) more than a year.

Some individuals with low income and resources may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is a more modest benefit. It covers severe disabilities such as blindness, as well as the aged and people with very limited resources.

If you want to know basic information about eligibility for SSDI and/or SSI, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR) website (http://nosscr.org/social-security-basics) is an excellent resource. In addition to eligibility information, this site also contains information about Medicare coverage and about the various appeal processes if your initial application is not accepted.

A more detailed explanation of Social Security disability benefits is available in Andy Landis' book "Social Security: The Inside Story" and in "Get What's Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security" by Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Philip Moeller and Paul Solman.

An experienced attorney or a "non-attorney representative" can assist you in filing your initial application or appealing an initial denial. There is no financial advantage in hiring a non-attorney representative. Social Security Administration regulations specify that the fees for all professional representatives are the same.

Representatives work on a contingency basis and receive fees from retroactive benefits. They are not awarded any fees until your application is approved. Specifically, the fee is limited to 25 percent of the past due benefits you are awarded, with a maximum of $6,000. They receive their fee from the first payment(s) you receive after your application is approved.

Representatives can bill you for costs, which can be a few hundred dollars. I recommend that before you hire a representative, you inquire about the expected out-of-pocket fees.

About one-third of initial applications are rejected. If your initial application is rejected, file a request for reconsideration within 60 days of receiving the denial notice. The reconsideration process generally takes about four months. If your request for reconsideration is denied, the next step is a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ).

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