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What to Expect When Applying for Disability Benefits

I really hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I also want to be real — if you’ve decided to go down this road, you need to be prepared for what’s to come! The process of applying for disability is daunting and long, and there is no promise in the end that your case will be won. I hope by recounting my experiences I can help you prepare yourself just a little bit better for what lies ahead.

First things first. If you’re considering applying for disability, you must be disabled. As obvious as that may sound, there is a lot to learn and understand about what is legally defined as a disability. For the sake of ease and brevity, let’s just assume that if you’re reading this article you have a documented disability as defined by Social Security. You have now decided to apply and don’t know where to start. My first and foremost recommendation to you would be to seek the advice of a disability attorney.

Now, the first place your mind will probably go to after hearing the word “lawyer” is your wallet. Typically the astronomical cost associated with attorney fees would scare anyone away from considering this option immediately. It is especially true for those of us who are applying for disability, since we already have a capped monthly income just to qualify to apply! It’s a system set up for you to fail: you are disabled so you can’t work, but you also need to be able to survive in the meantime.

Disability cases from start to finish can take an average of 15-20 months. If you don’t have someone helping to supplement your income while going through this process, it is virtually impossible to survive. While I have been very fortunate to have the support of family throughout this process, we are still struggling to pay our bills and have ended up with astronomical amounts of debt. When facing the possibility of bankruptcy, we turned to a debt relief program for assistance, but that is a topic for a different post.

I have some good news, though! Disability attorneys do not charge upfront. They only get paid if you get paid. Disability lawyers are only allowed to collect a maximum of 25 percent of your back pay settlement, and no more than $6,000. They do not receive any portion of your future monthly disability checks either. This actually makes it possible to seek legal advice no matter what your financial situation. I cannot stress enough how important I believe it is to seek the assistance of a disability attorney throughout this process. They will guide you along and facilitate communication with Social Security to assure that your application and subsequent documents have been filled out correctly and get into the right hands. There is a lot of red tape behind the scenes that we as non-lawyers do not understand! The help of a well-versed disability attorney is invaluable to the success of your case.

My next bit of advice to you would be to get your pencils sharpened — there’s a shit ton of paperwork in your future! Everything about you and your life is about to be requested over and over again in page after page of documents that you will be expected to fill out in explicit detail multiple times. While they obviously want very detailed records of your medical history and work history for the purpose of reviewing your case, they are also hoping you’ll get frustrated and give up. Maybe you won’t want to fill out the same document for the fifth or sixth time and will even drop your case! That’s one less disabled person for them to worry about and subsidize. In anticipation of this, I would suggest keeping very thorough records of your medical and work history, and also to hold onto copies of the documents you’ve already submitted. You will be asked for the same information multiple times to analyze for continuity, so having that already accessible is very helpful.

My last bit of advice to anyone considering applying for disability is to be prepared to be patient. There will be times that you want to give up, but you have to keep fighting! It is a long process that is intentionally not made easy for you, but it will more than likely be worth it in the end. I find that knowing in advance I have a long journey ahead helps me mentally prepare for playing the long game.

As of today, I am now 14 months into my case. Last week I received word from my disability attorney that my hearing is scheduled for May 13. My journey is finally coming to an end and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a long road, but it’s not over yet! I’ll keep you posted on what’s to come. Wish me luck!

Getty image by Relif.