Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Veterans and Social Security Disability Benefits

In this article, I will address the two questions I get asked the most by veterans considering applying for Social Security disability benefits. The question I get asked the most is whether or not you can receive both Social Security disability and VA compensation benefits at the same time? You can receive VA compensation and Social Security disability at the same time. That being said, it is important that you know that VA pension benefits and supplemental security income (SSI) are handled differently than VA compensation and Social Security disability (SSDI). So as long as you are sure you're getting VA compensation and applying for Social Security disability then you can get both benefits. However, if your receiving VA pension and getting or applying for SSI this is not the same since these benefits are based in part on financial need.

Probably, the second most common question is if getting 100% VA compensation will result in a favorable Social Security disability decision? It is also frequently asked in the reverse, does winning a Social Security disability claim mean you will get 100% VA compensation? It is important to know that a favorable Social Security disability decision or a 100% VA compensation rating is not binding on the opposite agency. If you are applying for Social Security disability benefits and you have a 100% VA compensation rating or individual unemployability this is good evidence that you are disabled, but it is not automatic. If you are applying for individual unemployability through VA compensation a favorable Social Security disability decision can be helpful in many cases. I say it can be helpful in many cases and not all cases because individual unemployability is determined by the VA by only considering your service-connected disabilities. Social Security disability will look at all of your disabilities when determining if you are disabled. So it is very possible you may be disabled under Social Security disability rules but not be entitled to individual unemployability under VA compensation rules. For more information on VA compensation visit my website on the subject. If you're looking for more information on Social Security disability you can visit my website on that subject. If you would like to speak to somebody on the phone about VA disability or Social Security disability feel free to call me at 1-877-527-5529.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How to Prepare for a Social Security Disability Hearing

For most claimants the most intimidating part of a Social Security disability claim is the hearing before the adminstrative law judge. In this article, I will explain some simple tips to help get you through the hearing process. Probably the most important thing is to make sure your file contains all your medical evidence and opinion evidence from your treating doctors. Opinion evidence can come in the form of RFC's or doctors report. Good opinion evidence will explain your medical conditions and how these conditions limit you in your ability to work. A letter from your Dr. stating that you are totally and permanently disabled with no clarification is basically useless. At the hearing stage, you will have an opportunity review your file. Take this opportunity to make sure all of your medical evidence and opinion evidence is in your file. You will also be able to see what Social Security doctors have said about your condition and your limitations. It also helps to understand what type of questions will be asked at your Social Security disability hearing. To get an idea of the questions that will be asked follow the link to my page on SSDI hearings. You may also want to consider hiring an SSDI lawyer because if you hire an experienced disability lawyer they will have handled many Social Security hearings. This will not only help you understand what to expect, but your lawyer should be skilled in the ability to ask questions and cross examine. They will also be able to present the theory of your case as to why you are disabled. If you choose not to get a lawyer then you should make sure you understand exactly what you have to prove to win your particular claim. Once you understand what you have to prove, you should then go through your file and make notes about the exhibits that help show you are disabled under Social Security rules. One thing to remember, is that Social Security hearings are informal hearings, which means you do not have to worry about rules of evidence. A Social Security disability hearing is fairly straightforward, with the ALJ or your lawyer if you have one asking questions of you. It is also possible there may be a medical expert or vocational expert or both at your hearing. In this situation, I strongly recommend getting an experienced SSDI lawyer since it would be nearly impossible for me to be able to explain how to cross examine these witnesses. One other thing you should know about the hearing is that most of the time you will not get a decision the day you have your hearing. It usually takes a couple of months to get a decision from the hearing office. For more information on SSD or SSI hearings follow link above to my page on the subject.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Social Security Disability: Don't Sabotage Your Case

The following true story is from Tracey E. Cahn a very experienced SSDI lawyer who works for my law firm. This story illustrates how someones disability can sometimes hurt their case. It is also an example of how it takes a big heart as well as a sharp mind to practice as a Social Security Disability lawyer.

There are disabled clients who are so desperately ill that they sabotage their Social Security Disability cases. Fortunately it is a rare occurrence, but it is a situation that definitely exists. Who would sabotage their case? I am not a fan of the generalization, but here it goes – these are people who are scared beyond reason, and often it has to do with an irrational fear of losing their children.

Today, I am going to discuss a woman I represented at her Social Security Disability Hearing yesterday. Ms. X has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, hypertension, obesity, degenerative disc disease, depression and anxiety. These conditions can certainly be disabling. However, in this instance, I believe Ms. X has another condition that has yet to be diagnosed. I believe she has an organic brain disease. I do not know what happened, but I believe something has happened that has caused her IQ to decline drastically.

Ms. X has a college education and served in the military. She is twice divorced and has two children; both children are mentally challenged and receive disability benefits. Ms. X filed for disability benefits several years ago and previously appeared at an SSDI hearing. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled that she was not severely disabled, and he based his decision primarily on the Claimant’s testimony regarding her tremendous care of her sons.
Her sons do need a great deal of attention, and she gives them all she can. However, what she did not tell the ALJ at that initial hearing is that most of their care is performed by aides supplied to her children in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, seven days a week. I did meet one of her sons. He is a sweet boy who behaves much like a well-spoken four year old; he is a teenager.

The first ALJ never heard about the extraordinary help she has for the children, never heard of her limited responsibilities for her children, never heard about the fact that she worked many part-time jobs around her sons’ schedules, never heard that even after her hours were reduced at her last job, she was still missing days due to pain and making many mistakes. Why did the ALJ not hear all the evidence? She left the ALJ with a false impression of her abilities because she was afraid he had the power to take away her children. She was too fearful to tell the full truth, and sabotaged her initial case as a result.

I was assigned to Ms. X’s new case for disability benefits about a month ago. I reviewed the file, and called her. I explained who I am, and reminded her of her upcoming SSD hearing. She had forgotten. I found her to have a very distracted mind, but I had no idea of her fear that she might lose her children. I had many medical records to review. I also had a report from a doctor, a primary care physician, stating that she has severe problems with concentration. This report was my only hint of what might be going on with her.

During the last few days before the hearing, I spoke to Ms. X no less than three times. I did my usual preparations for myself and the client. Together we filled out some forms that she had forgotten or neglected to complete. I was set for the hearing, but unsure of how she was going to get there. Especially since I was driving nearly 200 miles to get to her disability hearing, I wanted to make sure she would be present. I knew she could not tolerate a drive of that distance; I needed to make sure she had a ride.

The day before the hearing, I called Ms. X, we had another pleasant conversation. She tried to assure me that she would get a ride from a neighbor. Luckily the hearing was in the afternoon. I told her I would call her the next day at 9am, while I was on my way to her hearing, to see whether she did in fact have a ride.

I called. She did not answer the telephone. I called a half hour later, she did not answer. I called at least three more times. She did not answer the telephone. At that point in my journey, I had to make a choice. I could continue my drive and get to the hearing 2 hours early, or I could detour an hour and look for my client at her home. I detoured.

Fortunately, she did not live in a bad neighborhood. In fact, she lives in a relatively new townhouse community. It was very pleasant. I found her apartment, and rang the bell. I did not have much hope of an answer, but I felt that I had to give her the best opportunity to be heard. She did answer the door.

I arrived at her home an hour and a half before her hearing. Her hearing was to be held in a city an hour’s drive away. She appeared at the door wearing a bathrobe; I had awoken her from her nap. Her son was in the living room crowded with stacks of laundry, a bicycle and a bounty of other materials I was not interested in identifying. He was playing with pictures from a child’s movie from 10 years ago. I told her I was there to drive her to the hearing. She was not grateful. She was fearful. I told her to get dressed, we needed to be at the hearing in an hour. She agreed. She called a neighbor who was luckily available to watch her son.

As she dressed, I spoke with her son. We talked about the pictures he was playing with. I remembered the movie because my daughter, a year older than this boy, had loved that movie when it came out ten years before. Like this boy, she played with pictures of these characters, but she was five at the time.

Ms. X took about ten minutes to ready herself, and we left. Usually when I do a favor for a client, they are overly appreciative. Here, Ms. X did not appreciate my efforts in any way. She seemed frightened of me. I was annoyed at first. She had hired our firm to represent her in her Social Security disability claim, and she was not even going to have the courtesy to call me to let me know that she was not going to be there. I thought it was amazingly rude that she had known that I would be calling her and that she would not pick up the telephone. I kept my temper, and inquired how she had intended to get to the hearing had I not arrived. She said that she had planned to call the cab company to pick her up. I was in disbelief. Then, I learned what fear and misunderstanding had done to her. She started crying that the judge was going to take her kids away from her. She thought I was from the government and that I was dragging her to family court to have her children removed from her home.

I was shocked. I had spoken to this woman several times, others from my office had spoken to her, and she had hired us to represent her. But, she had become deluded and fearful and was panicked. I tried my best to calm her. I explained that the ALJ was not charged with making a decision about her children. I explained that my understanding is that she is a very good mother, and that she gets a lot of support to care for her children. I told her that I would tell that to the ALJ, but that the ALJ’s primary concern is whether she is disabled from working under the Social Security rules. No more, and no less.

She seemed to relax a bit. At least, she stopped crying for a while. She was scared that the ALJ would ask her too many questions and that she would not remember dates and times. I told her that all she is expected to do is tell the truth, and remember to the best of her ability.
We got to the hearing office. Generally I do not drive clients to their hearings. I only do it when I feel safe with the person, when they do not smoke and when they absolutely have no other way of getting there. I did not feel safe with Ms. X, but she does not smoke, so with 2 of out three of my rules met, I drove her. When I do drive clients to their hearing, I generally will drop them off at the front door of the building and then I find parking. Here, I did not trust that Ms. X would be safe alone. I thought she might wander off.

We made it to the 5th floor, and met the security guard. He instructed us to make use of the coat rack. My client put down her bag. Within moments she was thrown into a panic. She had forgotten what she did with the bag, and starting crying and screaming that someone had stolen it. Fortunately, I found it quickly under her coat and gave it to her. Nevertheless, she kept insisting someone had stolen it.

When called, I asked to speak with the ALJ alone. The ALJ was receptive. Before the ALJ started questioning my client, I wanted her to understand what I had observed that morning. The ALJ was very understanding. We had never met before but she struck me as the type of judge you always hope for – kind, patient and intelligent.

My client came in. Questioning began. My client asked the ALJ twice during the hearing what this proceeding was about and where she was. We gave her a full explanation both time. I am not sure whether she forgot or whether she just did not trust our answer. Questioning continued. The ALJ ruled from the bench that she would award benefits. The client remained impassive, but was glad to be allowed to leave.

I had already told Ms. X that I would be driving her home, but she still cried that she had no way of getting home. I explained to her what the decision meant. She did not trust what I said. I bought her sons their favorite candy bars. She was happy about that. I drove her home. She slept most of the way.

I was happy the day was over. I hope Ms. X will improve. I am glad we prevented her from sabotaging her case again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to Win a Social Security Disability Claim

There are many things you can do to win your Social Security Disability claim. I clearly cannot cover all of them in this one post, but I am going to explain two basic things that can help any disability claim. If you want to give yourself the best chance to win your SSDI or SSI claim you should read my full website on Social Security Disability. However, for those of you who preferred the abridged version I am going to explain the two basic ways you can win your claim and what you need to do it.

The first way you can be found disabled is if you meet or equal a listed impairment. To be found disabled under a listing it is extremely important that your doctor believes you meet or equal listing and is willing to write you a report explaining which listing by number and why. The report should include any medical evidence, tests, x-rays, MRIs or other medical evidence that the listing requires. It also helps if the doctor who is writing the report is a specialist in the area which you are claiming to meet a listing in. This sounds very easy, but the medical listing of impairments were written to be difficult to meet or equal, because if you are found disabled based on a listing they will not consider your age, education, or past work experience. The listing of impairments requires a severity of a medical condition that is so severe that anyone who meets the requirements is clearly disabled no matter what their age, education, or past work experience is. Most people applying for Social Security Disability benefits will not meet or equal a listed impairment. That being said, this should be the first place you look and if you feel you may meet or equal a listed impairment you should take a copy to your doctor to see if he or she feels the same way.

The second way you can be found disabled is if you can show the limitations caused by your medical conditions would prevent you from working. Your age, education, and past work experience are important here and dictate exactly how limited you must be to be found disabled but to be safe it is best to assume you have to show you cannot do any work. Nobody knows what limitations you have from your medical condition like you do. Unfortunately, Social Security cares more about what doctors believe your limitations are. This is why it is very important that you get opinion evidence from your treating doctors. In every case, Social Security examining and nonexamining doctors will give their opinion of your limitations from your medical conditions. You will need to get your treating doctor's opinions so that the Social Security doctor's opinions are not the only opinion of your limitations in your file. It is also important to know that your doctor's opinion is supposed to be given more weight than the opinion of the Social Security doctors if it is supported by the rest of the medical evidence. There are two ways to get your doctors opinion of your limitations. You can ask your doctor for a report explaining your medical condition and how it prevents you from working. The second way, and in my opinion the easier and better way, is to get RFC forms completed by as many of your treating doctors as you can. If you have an RFC completed by your doctor, and it shows limitations that would prevent you from working, and you have medical evidence that supports that opinion, then you have a real good chance of winning your Social Security disability claim. If you have two or more RFC's that show you have limitations that would prevent you from working and you have the medical evidence that supports these opinions then it would be very difficult for Social Security to deny your claim.

So, those are the to basic ways to prove you are disabled. You should always check if you meet or equal a listed impairment and get a report from your doctor if he or she believes you do to. Whether you are able to provide a report that states you meet or equal listed impairment or not, you should then try and get an RFC from each of your treating doctors. You cannot assume that Social Security will follow your treating doctors opinion, which is why you still need to get RFC's even if you have a report that states you meet or equal a listing. Also, if you have an RFC that shows you are unable to work, you should try and get another from one of your other treating doctors for the same reason. No matter what your medical condition is, if you can get a detailed report or RFC that shows you are disabled you will greatly increase your chances of winning your Social Security disability claim.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Social Security Disability: Knowledge to Win

I was once asked in an e-mail why it is that a person who is truly disabled for SSDI or SSI and whose doctors believe this person is disabled, still has to lose twice and then is forced to get a lawyer before they win their case. The e-mail was implying that there's some sort of conspiracy to force people to get lawyers before they can win their claims. I can assure you nobody from Social Security wants to make sure lawyers get clients. I think the problem is not that one is forced into getting a Social Security Disability lawyer to win their case at a later stage in the process to win, or that they win just by having a lawyer. I think one of the major problems and I have been writing about this for sometime, and it was the inspiration for me starting my website, is that people in general do not have access to the knowledge required to know what they have to show to win their claim. I believe lawyers are partly to blame for this, because most lawyers will not take cases at application because the fee they receive is based on past due benefits and they feel the work that is required to make sure the application is done correctly with all the evidence needed to win is not worth the fee they would get if they win at this stage. Many lawyers tell people to apply and call back when you are denied. You add this response, to the general belief that no one wins at application (which is not true 30 to 40% of cases at application win), and what you get is many people applying with no help and no knowledge of how to win. I personally handle cases at application for a few reasons. First, I believe if I help with the application I know the client will not only have a better chance at winning at application, but even if we do not win at application I know the application was done in a way that won't hurt but will help the case throughout each stage of the process going forward. Another reason to take cases at application is, because if we win I might only get a small fee if any, but I will have a very happy client who will refer me to other people. If you think about it if you get a lawyer at application and you win you may have no fee at all. Since SS will not pay a claimant for the first 5 months they are disabled there is a good chance there will be no past due benefits or very little therefore no fee at all or a small fee. One of the biggest problems is that people wait until they have been denied one or two times before they get a lawyer to help them. I can assure you there is not a conspiracy which forces people to get lawyers. Lawyers in particular lawyers who exclusively do disability claims know exactly what needs to be proved for any given case, and they know what evidence they need to prove the disability. A lawyer not only goes to law school to learn how to understand law and present evidence, but if they are experienced in a particular field like SSDI they have handled hundreds if not thousands of Social Security Disability claims. Can someone applying and pursuing SSDI on their own ever hope to be able to know as much or be able to handle a disability claim as well as a lawyer like this. I am a lawyer who has been practicing SSDI law for 15 years but when I bought and sold my last house I used a real estate lawyer. Could I have researched and done it on my own? Yes, but would I do as good a job as a lawyer who only does real estate law? Probably not. Ok, so I explained why experienced SSDI lawyers are helpful in getting SSDI benefits. That all being said, there is always going to be people who want to do it on their own, or who have a really strong case and do not need a lawyer. They will need the knowledge of what they have to prove to win and need to know what evidence is needed to prove they are disabled. Again, I have to say that lawyers are partly to blame here as well. When I looked up SSDI law on google about 4 or 5 years ago all I found was websites for lawyers with little or no good information on how to win a claim on your own. All I found was websites created by website companies looking to sell leads to lawyers that knew nothing about SSDI law but know how search engines work. The other type of websites I found were law firm and non-lawyer companies websites created by website people with no helpful information except reasons why you need their particular company or lawyer to win. This is when I started my Ultimate Social Security Disability website. I decided I was going to tell the world exactly what you have to do to win your claim for benefits in as easy to understand language as possible. I think if you spent any time reading my website, you will see that is exactly what I have done. Yes, I still get clients from the website, but I also get so many e-mails from people who were able to win their cases with the help of following the advice on my website, and from my e-mail responses to their questions. If you know someone who has a really strong case then tell them to read my website before just jumping in. In an e-mail to me it was asked how someone at SS can ignore all the doctors and conclude on their own that a person is not disabled despite what the doctors say. This can be an example of how knowledge of SSDI and what you need to win can be explained. One thing is that there are not just the claimant’s doctors but several SS doctors are involved as well. Some examine the claimant and give opinions and others look at the evidence and give opinions of what the client can do and not do in a work setting. If the claimant's doctors just write "it is my opinion the claimant cannot work" it is not worth the paper it is written on. If the claimant's doctor on the other hand fills out an RFC form which explains exactly what the claimant can and cannot due and why, then the claimant will have a much better chance of winning. This comes from understanding that you have to assume SS doctors will almost always have these forms filled out showing limitations that would allow the claimant to work. If the claimant has their doctors do the same thing but show the claimant cannot work then SS, by their own rules, must find in favor of the client because the treating doctor's opinion holds more weight than a SS doctor if the treating doctor’s opinions are consistent with the medical evidence. If a person knew this from the beginning, they would have made sure to have their doctors fill out these forms and could quite possibly win their Social Security Disability case much sooner. If a claimant on their own with this knowledge or if they had a lawyer they would have done this. This is just one small example of how knowledge of what you have to prove and how you do it for your particular claim can make the difference between winning at application with or without a lawyer and waiting 2 years with no money until you win. Just my view and I hope you can see a different side of the situation. I too believe the system can be unfair and takes too long and I also believe SSDI lawyers can take allot of the blame for not taking cases at application and Social Security and disability lawyers not taking time or effort to educate the public on how to win a claim on their own if they want to.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How Long It Takes To Get A Social Security Disability Hearing Is Getting Shorter

It looks like Social Security is making progress in how long it takes at the Social Security Disability Hearing level. I recently added the national ranking report as of February 2011 to my Social Security Disability website. There were several things that really stood out and quite frankly shocked me. Not only have the national averages in days for how long it takes from the time you request a hearing until you get a decision gone down, but they went down very significantly. What really amazed me was how much Atlanta and Atlanta North had improved their hearing wait times and rankings. In the national ranking report from May of 2008 the average wait time was 900 days in Atlanta North and 973 days in Atlanta downtown. These were the two worst-ranked hearing offices in terms of how long it took to get a hearing decision. They were ranked 141 and 142 from a total of 142 hearing offices. This meant claimants in Atlanta were waiting almost 3 years from the time they requested their hearing until they got a decision. This was clearly embarrassing for the hearing offices in Atlanta, and for the Social Security Administration. To their credit, they did something about it, and it is quite amazing at what they were able to accomplish. In the national ranking report from November 2009 Atlanta downtown's average waiting period went down to 468 days and North Atlanta went down to 475 days. North Atlanta was then ranked 98 out of 143 and Atlanta downtown was ranked 92 out of 143. The national ranking report from February 2011 showed an even more remarkable improvement. The average wait time at hearing in Atlanta downtown is now down to 302 days with Atlanta North down to 278 days. This means in just four years claimants in Atlanta now have one third the average wait time to get a decision at hearing then claimants did in Atlanta in May of 2008. Atlanta North is now ranked 16th in the 157 present hearing offices and Atlanta downtown is ranked 30th. There was clearly a focus on hearing offices that were ranking extremely poorly, but in the process it also brought down the national average overall. In the May 2008 national report, the national average from the time one requested a hearing until they got a decision was 523 days. In the November 2009 national report, the national average was 446 days. Presently, in the February 2011 national report, the processing time is down to 365 days. So how did they do it? Over the last several years SSA's budget allowed them to open 15 new hearing offices and about five of these were new National Hearing Centers that held video hearings in places with the biggest backlog of cases. The Social Security Administration also hired many new ALJ's and support staffs. There is also very few if any paper files left and the Social Security Administration is now essentially fully electronic. Is the overall wait time for disabled individuals to get through the Social Security disability and SSI process still too long? I think most of us would answer that it surely is, but you have to give the Social Security Administration, the individual hearing offices, and most of all its employees credit for taking great strides in the right direction. For many people with claims for SSDI or SSI these statistics are of little comfort to their financial hardships and probably the most difficult times of their lives, but it is important for people to know that a strong effort is being made to reduce the time they have to wait as much as possible. I will be watching the national ranking report closely to see if the trend continues despite the economy, increasing number of claims, and budget cuts. To see the full ranking reports I am referring to in this post visit my page on the Ultimate Social Security Disability Guide called "how long does it take".

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lawyers and Social Security Disability Claims for Mental Conditions

Many claimants with mental disabilities do not have lawyers for their Social Security disability claim. In my opinion, if you are applying for SSDI or SSI benefits for a mental condition it is important to have a lawyer to help you with your claim. Whether you suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety, mental retardation, schizophrenia or any other of the many mental disabilities. You should know that Social Security disability claims are extremely complex and require not only that you know what you have to prove, but also have the ability to do what must be done to win. If you are claiming you are disabled primarily because of your mental condition then you are essentially saying your mental limitations are so severe that they prevent you from performing work. Handling your own SSD claim for a mental condition creates a Catch-22. If you are able to fill out all the paperwork, get the evidence that is needed, and argue a good case on your behalf, the Social Security decision-maker may make the assumption that if you can do all this why would you not be able to work. The second scenario, is if you are not able to fill out all the paperwork properly, get the evidence needed, and be able to explain why you are disabled under Social Security's rules then you will not only have a difficult time winning but could substantially slowdown your case. If you hire a lawyer to help you with your claim it eliminates both these potential problems. The lawyer will help you fill your paperwork, will get your evidence that is needed and will argue on your behalf as to why are you disabled from your mental condition. Many people feel they cannot afford an attorney. However, the Social Security disability lawyer only gets paid if he or she wins your claim. The amount of the fee is 25% of past due benefits or $6000 whichever is less. The idea that one cannot afford an attorney is really not true in almost all cases considering there is no money up front and the money will be taken by Social Security directly from your past due benefits. Because of the reasons I mentioned above, it is important to have a SSDI lawyer when you apply. The other advantage, besides giving yourself a better chance to win at application, is that if you win at this stage your fee will almost always be less than if you hire a lawyer later in the process and win your SSDI or SSI claim for your mental condition at a later stage. This is why it can sometimes be difficult to find a lawyer willing to take your case at application. There are plenty of attorneys that do, so if you are told to call back when you're denied simply call another lawyer. You may be wondering why you can't just have a friend or family member help you with the process instead of getting a lawyer. You could do this, and it would potentially eliminate the Catch-22 problem I mentioned earlier, but will a family member or friend have the knowledge and ability to navigate the Social Security disability process as well as an SSDI lawyer who is experienced in disability law would. If you are familiar with my writings on the Internet you know that I rarely say you need a lawyer, and most of my articles and web pages are about how to give yourself the best chance to win with or without a lawyer. However, I do feel that if you are trying to get Social Security disability benefits for a mental condition that a lawyer would be particularly beneficial in a claim of this sort. If you have any questions about getting SSDI or SSI benefits for mental conditions or need help with your claim call me at 1-877-527-5529.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Social Security Disability Press Releases

A new page can be found at my Ultimate Social Security Disability website. I was looking for topics to cover on my SSDI and SSI website, so I was reviewing the Social Security Administration's press releases. It then occurred to me that most people don't even know that SSA releases news fairly regularly on their website. As I started to review them I noticed that many of these press releases would be of interest to the readers of my website. So I decided to start a page on my disability website devoted to press releases from SSA that are about Social Security disability and SSI. To give you an idea of the type of information that SSA releases to the public, you can find news releases about the 2012 budget, the cost of the Social Security system on our nations GDP, strategic plans for improving the process over several years, new rules as they are published, requests for comments from the public on its rules and regulations, and I even found that there was a very significant theft of personal information in upstate New York. Although many of my readers, are rightfully more concerned about information that is going to help them win their Social Security disability and SSI claims, but I am also sure there are plenty of you out there that would find this information interesting and potentially helpful. The focus of my website always has been and still is about getting the information you can't find anywhere else that will help you win your SSD or SSI benefits. However, I think one page that will be updated frequently with new press releases that are relevant to Social Security disability and SSI from the Social Security Administration is a nice addition to my website and will make these press releases easy to find.

Another topic I would like to discuss in this post, is that I frequently get questions in my e-mails about filling out the great deal of paperwork that Social Security sends you when you are at the application level. I will be adding pages that explain these forms and hopefully give you some insight into what certain questions mean, what sort of answers Social Security is looking for, and how these forms are used in helping Social Security determine if you are disabled. The first of these pages will be about the function report SSA 3373. Of all the paperwork you sent back to Social Security, this is probably the most used by SSA decision-makers and therefore, probably the most important. I should have the page up by this weekend and will link it from this post when it is available and you will also be able to find it linked from my page on how to apply for Social Security Disability. I think you will find this page to be very helpful in filling out this form and give you a better understanding of how it is used in your Social Security disability or SSI claim.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

How to Find a Good Social Security Disability Lawyer

This post on how to find yourself a good Social Security disability lawyer will talk mostly about searching on the Internet for an SSD or SSI lawyer. I am going to talk about how to determine if the person or company you are considering is a lawyer or non lawyer advocate. I will also discuss the right questions to ask, as well as some frequently asked questions that are not particularly helpful in picking a disability lawyer. I will also discuss how to determine if a particular website is a lawyer, a non-lawyer advocate, or a website that is going to sell your information to random attorneys or non attorney advocates. In this article, I am assuming that you are looking for lawyer and not a non lawyer representative. I think there are some good non-lawyer advocates out there but there are so many big non-attorney companies that are not bound by lawyer ethics rules so it makes it difficult to give advice on how to find a good non-lawyer representative. I also believe that most people would prefer to have a lawyer to represent them in their Social Security Disability case. But if you find a non-lawyer representative you like you can ask similar questions you would ask a lawyer.

So, how do you know if the company or person you think you want to represent you is a lawyer or a non lawyer representatives? If you call the company you are thinking of using asked them if they are a law firm. If they tell you they have lawyers in their company, but avoid the question then you know they are not a law firm and a non-lawyer representative may show up at your hearing. Every big company has lawyers, but if you want make sure a lawyer is going to represent you in court then you will want a law firm. If it is not a big company, but rather a single representative you can simply ask them if they are a lawyer. Many of the larger companies will use many tricks to infer that they are a law firm. So even if you have questioned them thoroughly on the phone you will want to make sure you read the paperwork they send to you and read all the fine print. If you have reason to suspect that they are not a law firm then visit their website and if it does not say specifically that they are lawyer, attorney or law firm but instead use the term advocate or representative then chances are they are not a law firm or lawyer.

Now that you have separated the lawyers from non-lawyer representatives the best you can, you will now want to ask the right questions to determine what attorney is right for you. One question that is frequently asked which I believe is the wrong question to ask of a lawyer is what their winning percentage is. This is a question that many nonlawyer companies tell you to ask on their websites. One thing they don't tell you is that lawyers and law firms have to follow the ethics rules on advertising for attorneys. A lawyer or law firm may be violating the ethics rules if they disclose winning percentages to potential clients. These ethics rules do not apply to non-attorneys. When you see a website that boasts about their winning percentage chances are they are not a law firm and you must always read the fine print. Many non-attorney companies will claim to win 90 to 95% of their cases. Let me point out a few things about claims such as these. If you read the fine print on some of these sites it will say in cases that we represent the client through the entire administrative process. What they don't tell you is that they frequently drop cases that they don't feel they can win (unfortunately many lawyers do this as well). I have received many e-mails from people who have been dropped weeks and sometimes days before their hearing. Another thing to consider is that many non-attorneys or non lawyer companies are not willing and possibly not able to take on the more difficult cases. Also, most lawyers are required to do a certain amount of pro bono cases, which many times are not great cases, because they are the cases where the claimant has not been able to find someone to represent them, or they were cases referred to them through legal aid to help with their case load. So, what questions should you ask of a SSDI or SSI lawyer. You can ask them what percentage of their cases are disability cases. You can also ask them how long have they been handling Social Security Disability claims. You can also ask them if they are in NOSSCR. This is The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives. This organization is for lawyers and non-lawyers and they have two conferences a year and send a newsletter every month to their members to keep them up-to-date on the latest Social Security disability news and cases. Not all Social Security disability lawyers are in this organization and should not be the deciding factor in whether you hire a particular lawyer but if they are a member it shows a certain commitment to this area of law. You can also ask the lawyer if he or she has been certified as a Social Security Disability Specialists by any organization or by their State Bar. One thing I should note here, is that some states do not recognize specialization by lawyers, so again this should not be the deciding factor but rather another thing to consider. If it is a large or medium sized law firm you may want to ask the experience of the other Social Security disability lawyers in the firm since you will probably not know which particular lawyer will be representing you if you have a hearing. If you want a lawyer from the start you will also want to ask if they take cases at application. Probably the most important thing when choosing a lawyer is not so much how they answer all your questions, but how did you feel after talking to the attorney. In other words, did you feel rushed, did the lawyer seem interested, did the attorney ask you questions about your claim, did he or she appear honest, was the attorney willing to answer questions about Social Security disability in general and most importantly where you comfortable speaking to the lawyer. To find a good and experienced Social Security Disability lawyer it should not take you having to call more than a few lawyers to decide. If the lawyer has been handling Social Security disability claims for a long time and you are comfortable speaking with that lawyer then you have probably found the good fit for you. Most experienced SSDI and SSI lawyers will handle your claim in a similar way as other experienced disability lawyers so if you find one you are comfortable with it should be easy to make a choice.

In the last part of this article I want you to be aware that you should not fill out every form you come across on every disability website. There is a very big business of website companies that make very nice and high ranking websites and the goal of these websites is to get you to fill out a form so they can sell your information to lawyer and non lawyer representatives. I personally answer all my e-mails and do not sell any of my e-mails I receive. However, there are many websites that do. It can sometimes be difficult to tell whether the website you are reading, and that you want to send information about your case to, is a lead generating website to sell your information, or a website that is willing to answer your questions and keep your information confidential. If you are filling out the form on a law firm website then it is fairly safe to assume the law firm would have an interest in answering your questions or representing you. If the website does not disclose what firm or company is running that website then it may be a lead generating website. If the company that owns the firm sounds more like an Internet company than a disability firm then this could be a red flag as well. Most websites that offer to answer questions or give free evaluations that only intend to answer your question or evaluation and not sell your information will have the name of the law firm or disability company somewhere on the site. It is also a good sign if the author of the website clearly states who he or she is and what his or her disability lawyer credentials are to answer your questions. You should also always read the footnotes at the bottom of the website which will some times tell you that your information is sent to third parties. The good thing is that even if you do send your information to a lead selling company chances are the third party will be an attorney or non-attorney representative who most likely only want to represent you and have no interest in passing your information beyond themselves. The one thing you should never do is send your SS number to anyone on the web. I hope you found my article to be helpful but sometimes the best way to find your SSDI or SSI lawyer is to use a disability lawyer a friend or family member used and liked. Good luck.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Social Security Disability Versus VA Compensation. Who is Slower?

Comparing Social Security disability to VA compensation, in terms of how long the claim takes and how these administrative agencies handle cases, is like comparing the computers in the 80s to the present day computers. Although the Social Security Administration is far from perfect and the Social Security disability claims still take too long to process, the Veterans Administration is way behind in the processing of VA compensation claims. The biggest reason for this discrepancy is probably mostly funding, but regardless the cause, I think we owe it to our veterans to at least bring the Veterans Administration closer to the Social Security Administration in how it is run and processes claims. In this post, I will give you some examples of how far behind the VA is from SSA. All Social Security disability claims are now computer files. In contrast, the VA is still using paper files. In Social Security disability claims at the hearing level lawyers can now access the file of their claimants over the Internet. This also means that a paper file no longer has to be shuffled around at Social Security to different people for them to work on the file. At the VA, each time a new person needs to do something with the veterans file they must get the paper file and then pass it to the next person or in many cases mail it. If a lawyer wants to see his clients VA file, he or she has to send in a request and wait for someone at the VA to copy the file and send it to the lawyer. I know from experience this can take from months to a year. I am also sure, there is better things the VA employee who has to copy the file, could be doing than having to copy hundreds or thousands of pages. Another example is that it is much easier, although still not always easy, to get a hold of somebody at SSA. Trying to get someone on the phone at the VA who knows something about your client's case can be an utter nightmare most of the time. These are just a couple examples of how the Social Security Administration is much more efficient at handling Social Security Disability claims than the VA is with handling VA Compensation. The purpose of me writing this is not to bash the VA because I know from experience there are some very good employees who are doing their best with what they have. I am writing this post hoping to bring some attention to the fact that our veterans deserve better than this and it can only be fixed if the members of Congress take notice of this fact and steps to correct it. I know the VA is presently trying to become more digitized and to make their files electronic, and hopefully they will succeed as quickly as possible. I am aware of the enormity of this task, as I deal with veterans files all the time and they are generally much larger than Social Security files. However, if the VA succeeds in getting rid of most of their paper I believe it will save money in the long run. I also believe more importantly, that it will reduce the time it takes for disabled veteran to receive a decision and will eliminate the all too frequent lost records that oftentimes prevents a veteran from being able to prove his claim.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Appeal Denied SSDI Claim at Application or Reconsideration

In almost all situations, if you want to win your Social Security disability claim you should request a hearing if you are denied at application in states that don't have reconsideration or if denied at reconsideration in states that do have it. This may seem obvious, but I have seen so many people come to me who did not appeal their denial at application or reconsideration in time and instead filed a new application either right after the denial or months or years later. This is a big mistake in most cases for several reasons. One reason, is that in an SSDI claim you can be paid benefits one year prior to your application and in SSI cases you can get paid benefits from the date of your application. Therefore, if you do not appeal you may be losing back due benefits that you would have been entitled to had you appealed instead of filing a new application. If you made this mistake, you may want to seek the help of a Social Security Disability lawyer, since depending on when you filed your new application it is often possible to reopen the prior claim and preserve the past due benefits that would be owed to you under the old claim. Another reason you should request a hearing, is that your chances of winning at the hearing stage is in most cases is better than your chance of winning on a new application. This was confirmed by a report done by the office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the Social Security Administration (SSA). They found that certain medical conditions were approved at significantly higher rates at the hearing level then at application or reconsideration. The medical conditions that stood out the most were diabetes mellitus, back conditions, osteoarthrosis and similar disorders, and medical conditions of muscle, ligament and fascia. One of the reasons appears to be that more claimants were represented at the hearing level then at application or reconsideration. The OIG report mentions other conclusions as well such as the claimant's age impacted disability determinations at application, reconsideration and hearing levels. Cases were approved at hearing based on a different medical condition then the medical condition that the application and reconsideration decisions were based on. They also found that hearing offices and administrative law judges had significantly different allowance rates with wide variations. The OIG based on this report plans to further investigate the causes of these differences. In my opinion, the fact that more people were represented at hearing is probably the biggest reason for the higher allowance rates at hearing then at application reconsideration. To see the full report by OIG for SSA you can find it at http://www.ssa.gov/oig/ADOBEPDF/A-07-09-19083.pdf
I also want to note that just because the percentage of cases that win at hearing are higher than at application this does not mean that all cases are denied at application which is a widely held belief on the Internet. In fact, I believe if more people were represented at application this gap in approval rates between application and hearing would shrink significantly saving the claimant and Social Security a great deal of time and reduce overall processing times of claims in general.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

How Does Social Security Determine if You Are Working?

The first thing Social Security decides in a Social Security disability or SSI claim is whether or not you are working. If you are working then Social Security will find you not disabled at the first step of the five step test that determines if you are disabled. To see the rest of the five step test for disability you can visit my page from one of my websites that explains it in detail. Not all work is considered work for Social Security purposes under the rules. For Social Security to determine you are performing work they must find you are performing Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). If you're an employee determining whether or not you are performing SGA is fairly simple. If you are not blind, then if you make over $1000 a month (year 2010) than you are working at Substantial Gainful Activity for each month you make over that amount. If you are not blind and you make less than $1000 a month (2010) then the work you are doing should not be considered SGA. If you are blind, it works the same as above except the amount is $1640 a month (2010). I will now discuss what determines SGA in a SSDI or SSI claim for someone who is self-employed. If you are self-employed and not blind then how Social Security will determine whether your work activity is SGA depends on whether you perform this work activity before or after you received SSDI benefits for 24 months. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will use a Three Step Test to evaluate your work activity when you first apply for Social Security disability and prior to receiving SSD benefits for 24 months. SSA will consider self-employment work activity as SGA if: you render significant services to the business, and you had over the SGA level ($1000 in 2010) average monthly income; or your work is comparable to work of persons without disability in your community engaged in the same or similar businesses; or your average monthly work is worth the SGA level earnings in terms of its effect on the business or when compared to what you would have to pay an employee to do the work. Social Security uses the Countable Income Test when a claimant has been entitled to and received SSDI benefits for at least 24 months. They only use this test to determine whether a claimant has engaged in SGA and if the claim is disability has ended as a result of that SGA. If the claimant's monthly countable earnings average more than $1000 (in 2010), SSA will decide that the claimant has engaged in SGA unless there is evidence that the claimant is not rendering significant services in the month. If we claimants monthly earnings average less than $1000 then Social Security will not consider the claimant to have engaged in SGA. If you are blind and self-employed SSA decides whether or not you are engaging in substantial gainful activity by looking to see if you have received substantial income from the business and rendered significant services to the business. SSA makes this determination using the claimant's countable earnings. SSA will also use the claimant's countable earnings to determine whether they have engaged in SGA and whether payments can be reinstated during the extended period of eligibility. There is yet another exception and that is if you are self-employed, blind, and you are age 55 or older. In this situation, if your earnings demonstrate SGA but you work requires a lower level of skill and ability than the work you did before age 55 or when you became blind whichever is later we will suspend not terminate your benefits. The claimant's eligibility for Social Security disability benefits continues indefinitely, and SSA will pay the claimant's benefits for any months where earnings fall below the substantial gainful activity amount. I know that much of this can be confusing and if you have any questions about this issue or any others feel free to contact me at 1-877-527-5529 or e-mail me from my Social Security Disability benefits website.

The terms Substantial Gainful Activity and SGA were used a lot in this post. Therefore, I decided to include Social Security's definition of Substantial Gainful Activity below.According to Social Security the terms substantial gainful activity is used to describe a level of work activity and earnings. Work is "substantial" if it involves doing significant physical or mental activities or combination of both. The work activity to be substantial, it does not need to be performed on a full-time basis. Work activity performed on a part-time basis may also be substantial gainful activity. "Gainful" work activity is work performed for pay or profit; or work of the nature generally performed for pay or profit, or work intended for profit, whether or not profit is realized.