Social Security Disability Insurance can be a financial safety net

Most Americans do not have enough money saved to survive if they become too sick or sustain injury that prevents them from continuing to work. Even a person who doesn't live paycheck to paycheck usually can't live off his or her savings for long or share a spouse's or partner's wages to make ends meet.

The federal government's Social Security Disability Insurance can provide the needed safety net. SSDI is funded through Social Security payroll deductions and provides disability insurance for most people who work fairly regularly throughout their lives. It is designed to provide monthly payments for those disabled from working before becoming old enough to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.

The initial threshold to SSDI qualification is whether the applicant's work history is sufficient to meet the Social Security Administration's precise prerequisites concerning the dates and volume of historic work activity. For a person who meets these technical requirements, the issue becomes whether he or she meets the SSA's strict definition of "disability" for purposes of SSDI qualification.

To be disabled, a claimant must be prevented from working by a physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments expected to last at least one year or result in death. The SSA uses a five-step process to analyze whether someone is disabled:

  • Is he or she working? A very minimal amount of monthly earnings are allowed. If no, then ...
  • Is the claimant's condition severe? The agency asks whether he or she is "significantly limited" in doing "basic work activities? If yes, then ...
  • Does the claimant's medical condition meet or equal an impairment on the SSA's List of Impairments? The agency maintains a list of diseases and injuries so serious that if the claimant's condition is included, he or she is presumed disabled. If not, then ...
  • Can the claimant return to previous work? If not, then ...
  • Can the claimant do any other kind of work? The agency considers the applicant's impairments along with age, past work experience, skills and education to see if he or she could do different work available in significant numbers in the economy. If no, then the claimant is disabled and SSDI eligible.

One of the most important parts of filing a successful SSDI application is to see that adequate medical evidence is available in the SSA file so that an evaluator can understand all the physical and mental impairments, their impact and how long they are expected to last. While the agency has the legal duty to develop the record, including sending the claimant to a doctor for assessment of conditions not sufficiently developed, the applicant can actively submit important medical records him or herself.

Because the government analysis of disability is so complex, it is a good idea to involve an experienced SSDI attorney in the process as early as possible, even before the initial application. A knowledgeable lawyer can help the applicant meet deadlines, complete forms and develop the medical record in the file.

Even if an attorney is not involved at the application stage, the claimant can retain one at any later stage of appeal. After the initial application, in New York an applicant can request a hearing before an administrative law judge or ALJ (in other states there is a different first review step called reconsideration.) Many applications are approved at the ALJ hearing stage, but if not, the claimant can request review by the SSA Appeals Council and then in the federal court system.