Every claim for social security disability begins with an application. The application is one of the most important components of a successful disability claim for a few reasons. First, it the SSA claims examiner their initial impressions of your case and we all know the importance of first impressions. Second, the SSA claims examiners will use the information contained in the application to investigate your case and obtain the medical information necessary to determine the merits of your claim. Third, if your case goes to hearing, the administrative law judge will consider the statements contained in the application along with your medical records and live testimony in determining whether or not you are disabled.
The social security administration allows claimants to represent themselves throughout the disability determination process. There is no rule that requires a claimant to retain an attorney. That being said, many claimants chose to hire an attorney because (1) attorney fees are capped and contingent upon victory; (2) attorneys are legal professionals trained in advocacy and argument; and (3) a competent attorney will develop the record over the course of the case and ensure a better chance of success in the appellant courts should your claim ultimately be denied.
If you decide to make a claim for social security disability and represent yourself, here are five tips to consider when filling out your initial application.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
The initial application for disability benefits (hereinafter referred to as “initial application”) takes a lot of time and effort to successfully complete. It has two primary components (1) the initial application and (2) the disability report. The application can be completed online or in person with a representative of your local social security administration field office. Regardless of whether you fill out the application by yourself or at the field office, it is important to make sure that you have all the necessary information handy. I suggest you take the time to read the initial application and disability report before completing them to make sure you can answer all the questions.
At the very least you should prepare a complete list of all your medical providers including their contact information and dates of treatment as well as a list of your prescriptions and the identity of the prescribing physician before you start the application. In my practice, clients often have difficulty remembering their medical history with sufficient detail to complete the application. A competent attorney can lead his or her client through a line of questioning designed to elicit the detail necessary to provide the SSA with a complete medical history. For reasons that will be discussed below, a complete medical history is one of the most important parts of the initial application.
UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE OF THE APPLICATION
The primary purpose of the initial application is to give the SSA the information they need to investigate your claim and determine whether or not you are disabled. Since a person must have “one or more medically determinable impairments that are severe and expected to last 12 months or result in death” the disability criteria are primarily medical. The good news is that the SSA is responsible for obtaining the evidence necessary to decide your case including obtaining your medical records and possibly sending you for a consultative examination with an SSA physician. Since the SSA will rely on your initial application to determine what medical records and tests to order, it is extremely important that your initial application contain a complete medical history.
ACCURACY, ACCURACY, ACCURACY
In my experience, few things are more important to a quick and successful disability determination than an accurate application. It’s very important that you make sure all the information is accurate including the contact information for your medical providers and dates of treatment. Inaccurate information can result in significant delays in getting a decision on your case as well as an incomplete record in the event of an appeal.
TELL THE RIGHT STORY
A person is not awarded disability because they are physically or mentally impaired. They are awarded disability because their physical and/or mental condition results in specific impairments that render them incapable of working. Therefore, it is important to explain how your physical and/or mental condition prevents you from working when the application calls for a narrative answer. Don’t give conclusory answers such as “I can’t work because my back hurts” or “I can’t work because I’m depressed”. Instead, explain how your back pain or depression limits your ability to do work activities such as stand, sit, or concentrate. A better answer will read something like “I can’t work because the pain in my back prevents me from standing more than 10 minutes without a break” or “I can’t work because my depression prevents me from concentrating on anything for more than two hours”.
ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF
Attorneys are advocacy professionals. If you decide to act as your own attorney, you will need to advocate for yourself without the benefit of many years of training and experience. There are a few rules which can help you advocate well for yourself. First, make sure to read the question carefully and be specific when describing your limitations. Don’t say you can stand for six hours when in truth you can only stand for two hours without a break. Second, keep it simple and answer narrative questions using examples from your real life. For example, “I can’t walk the one hundred feet from my front door to the mail box without getting out of breath” is a good answer. Third, don’t skimp on the details. Provide as much detail as you believe necessary to explain the nature of your impairments and how they prevent you from working.
Following these tips will help you complete a thorough and complete initial application and get your claim off on the right foot. If you follow these tips and decide to get an attorney down the line, you will have a better chance of prevailing on your claim.