Do I need a lawyer to reapply for disability to get benefits going back to the date of my first application?

Question: I have been battling chronic migraines, chronic daily headaches, depression & anxiety for over a decade. About 18 months ago I finally applied for disability benefits. I was denied. Due to my conditions and frustration, I failed to appeal my denial.
I know it’s too late to appeal, so can I reapply or do I need to get a lawyer? If I can reapply, can I still request benefits from almost two years ago, when I initially applied?

Yes, you can reapply for disability benefits from Social Security by filing a new claim. You can also request that your original claim be reopened when you file the new claim. If you’re successful, Social Security will pay benefits back to the date of your original application, or even up to a year before your original application date if you can prove your disability started that long ago.

You didn’t say when you received the denial from Social Security, but if it was less than 12 months ago, you should have an easy time reopening your claim. You do have to claim that the same medical conditions (or related ones) are disabling and that your disability started before the date of your first claim. In your case, it sounds like that won’t be a problem. But make sure you have medical records that show you suffered from these conditions several years ago and that you’ve also been seeing a psychiatrist or neurologist recently.

If you received the denial more than a year ago, you’ll have a harder time reopening the claim. You’ll have to show that you have “new and material” evidence about the claim (meaning the evidence wasn’t considered in the prior claim and it would have meant an approval of benefits), or that that the prior decision reflects an obvious error. This isn’t an easy standard to meet, and if you request a claim be reopened and the request is denied, you can’t appeal the decision.

So if you were denied over 12 months ago, I would ask a disability lawyer to help you reopen your original application. A disability lawyer will know how to request the prior claim be reopened and how to argue why your evidence is new and material or why there was a clear error in the initial decision. An attorney can also make sure your new claim follows the reopening rules regarding dates and relevance. Of course, if the lawyer doesn’t think your case is likely to win or get reopened, that will save you the time and headache it will take to file a new claim and wait for an answer. In other words, it’s always a good idea to at least do a free consultation with w lawyer. To set up a consultation, you can fill out Nolo’s case evaluation form and a disability lawyer from your area will follow up with you.

If my doctor says I can’t work, doesn’t that imply I have functional restrictions?

Question: I have degenerative disc disease and a herniated disc, have had spinal fusion surgery, and I still am not able to return to my job. I was hoping that the insurance company would approve me for long-term disability benefits (following the expiration of my short-term benefits). However, the insurance company said I don’t have any continuing restrictions even though my doctor says that I should not return to work yet. I called the insurance company and they said the medical records submitted by my doctor’s office don’t show what restrictions I have. Shouldn’t the off-work order be enough?! 

Answer: Generally a long-term disability insurance company wants objective, comprehensive medical evidence that there are specific functional restrictions that prevent you from returning to work. A doctor’s note that you can’t return to work until your next evaluation, or that you are fully disabled and should not return to work, is not going to cut it. Insurance companies want to know the following:

  • how long you can stand, walk, or sit
  • how much weight you can lift, push, or pull
  • whether you can reach overhead, bend, or stoop
  • whether you can handle small object with your fingers or type
  • how frequently you need to take breaks, and
  • how much time you need to take off work for sick days or hospitalizations.

If your doctor can provide this information and it shows your functional limitations (restrictions) are great enough to keep you from working, you should be able to get approved for long-term disability (LTD). If you apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), the Social Security Administration will want this information as well. The best way to gather this information is to have your doctor fill out a detailed functional capacity report about what you can and cannot do.

Don’t rely on the insurance company to send forms to your doctor to fill out; insurance paperwork isn’t likely to solicit answers to questions in your favor, and it’s not likely to be as comprehensive as a functional capacity form. Plus, you won’t know whether your doctor filled out the forms or instead just sent a short note with an unsupported opinion on your disability.

Nolo has a residual functional capacity form you can give to your doctor to document your restrictions for both your LTD claim and your SSDI claim. The form also asks for clinical findings and test results that back up the doctor’s opinion on your restrictions. Tying this evidence to the doctor’s opinion is key to getting an approval.

Explain to your doctor that the insurance company needs details, hand him or her the form to fill out, and ask the doctor to send you a copy of the filled out form. That will give you the evidence you need.

If you’ve been officially denied, however, you should talk to a disability lawyer before filing an appeal. A lawyer can help you “stack the administrative record” with evidence so that, if you have to file a federal lawsuit, the court will be able to consider all of your evidence (a federal court can’t consider any evidence that wasn’t brought up in an appeal to the insurance company).

If you’re considering applying for SSDI, you may also find this Nolo article on getting disability benefits for back problems helpful.

Will moving back in with my wife cause her to lose SSI and Medicaid?

Question: I am on SSDI and my wife is on SSDI and a very small SSI check. We live apart but her health is getting worse and she really needs to live with me. I get $807 SSDI and have to pay my $29 for Medicare Part D out of that. She gets $703 SSDI after her Medicare D payment. I would actually be kind of a caregiver for her, as she falls down a lot from her strokes years ago. We are wondering if it would affect her income or Medicaid in any way. She has full Medicaid because of her small SSI check and I am on Medicaid crossover.

Answer: Your income would be counted toward your wife’s eligibility for SSI, and given your SSDI income, it’s not unlikely that she would lose her SSI and SSI-dependent Medicaid. But, if your state has opted into Medicaid expansion, your wife could continue to qualify for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). (Under the ACA, those with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level can qualify for Medicaid in expansion states.)

Additionally, it sounds like your wife has been receiving Medicare. If she loses Medicaid, she could probably qualify to receive free Medicare Part B through the Specified Low-Income Medicare Beneficiary (SLMB) and Qualifying Individual (QI) programs and to receive “Extra Help paying for Medicare Part D.

Also, you should consider that your increased income from moving in together could affect your dual eligibility status  for Medicare and Medicaid. You could probably also get help through the above programs, but you may not continue to qualify as a Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) for crossover purposes. This could mean you might be subject to more out-of-pocket costs. I would talk to Social Security about how the move would affect your wife’s SSI eligibility and to your state’s department of health care services about how the change would affect dual eligibility for you both.

If my injury didn’t happen at work, are any benefits available besides welfare or SSI?

Question: I hurt my back badly and I can’t do my job anymore. Unfortunately the injury was on the weekend and not at work, so I can’t get any compensation or time off work for it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m afraid I won’t be able to feed my family. What happens if I can’t pay my mortgage? I don’t want to have go on welfare or food stamps or SSI; I want to provide for myself. And don’t I have to become destitute and lose my house before I go on SSI anyway?

Answer: I’m sorry to hear of your injury. Your anxiety is natural — most people’s initial reaction to a disabling injury is the fear that they’ll never be able to work again and won’t be able to provide for their family. Fortunately, the Social Security Administration provides insurance against this type of situation. Many people think Social Security just provides retirement benefits, but if you are injured and unable to work for the long-term, you can start getting your Social Security benefits early. You can actually collect the same amount as you would at full retirement age.

This part of Social Security is called Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and everyone who has paid FICA taxes (or self-employment taxes) for a number of years has it. It’s amazing how many people pay for this insurance but don’t know about it; they mistakenly think their only option is SSI, which is only for those with very low income (though to answer your question, SSI recipients can keep their house and car and still receive benefits). You shouldn’t be uncomfortable applying for Social Security Disability; it’s an insurance program you pay for in case something like this happens.

The maximum SSDI benefit this year is $2,640 this year, which is not too shabby, but to earn this amount, you must have worked a number of years earning a fairly good salary. Most people receive much less from SSDI; the average is around $1,200 per month. However, your family may also be able to get benefits if you’re found disabled. If you have a minor child, he or she can receive 50% of your benefit amount, and if your spouse is caring for your child or is of retirement age, he or she can receive 50% of your benefit amount (but if more than one dependent receives benefits, there’s a family maximum benefit that will limit the amount of benefits your family can receive).

The downside is that, unless your injury is very severe and clear cut (easy to prove with objective medical tests), it can take a long time to get a decision from Social Security. While you wait for a decision, you may be able to get a loan modification or forbearance on your mortgage or get other forms of temporary assistance.  And if you eventually get approved, you’ll be paid back benefits to the date you became unable to work, which add up to a significant lump sum. But be forewarned, it’s not easy to qualify for SSDI; Social Security must find that there is no full-time job you can do (even a sit-down job), for at least a year. To find out if your injury may qualify, you may want to read Nolo’s article on getting disability for back problems.

What can I do if Social Security didn’t give me the correct disability start date?

Question: I applied for SSDI in January of 2014 and, although I have been disabled since a major surgery on 01/20/12, SSDI chose 01/20/13 as my effective disability start date. This decision means I cannot receive Medicare benefits until January 2015.This is not a correct decision by SSDI and I cannot find any info on how to appeal the decision. I am hoping you will be able to assist me.   

Answer: Unfortunately, I don’t think Social Security has made a mistake. You may well have met Social Security’s definition of disability in January 2012, but Social Security will pay retroactive benefits going back only so far. In turn, Social Security will assign a disability start date (called an established onset date) going back only so far.

The rule is that Social Security will pay retroactive benefits going back only 12 months before the date you apply. Since you applied in January 2014, you can only receive benefits dating back to January 2013 (your “entitlement date”).  You become eligible for Medicare 24 months after your entitlement date, which in your case means January 2015.

Just to clear up a little confusion, your disability onset date is not the same as the day you become entitled to disability payments. There is a five-month waiting period in between your disability onset date and when you are entitled to be paid benefits, meaning Social Security will set your disability onset date to be five months before your entitlement date. What this means is that your disability onset date can be no earlier than 17 months before the date you apply for Social Security benefits. In your case, your disability onset date should be in August 2012.

I’m sorry that wasn’t the answer you wanted to hear. You may be able to qualify for Medicaid until January 2015, if your medical expenses are very high and your income and assets aren’t.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on My Lump-Sum Backpayment of Social Security Disability Benefits?

Question: I was finally approved for disability late last year and received a large lump sum payment from Social Security. But half of this money was for the tax year before last year. It makes it look like I had a high income last year. Am I going to have to give half my disability backpay away because of this? Can I amend the last year’s tax return and claim half the disability income on that return instead?

Answer: Disability backpay can bump up your taxable income in the year you receive the lump sum payment from Social Security, which could cause you to pay more in taxes than you should have to. Technically, part of the backpay should have been paid to you last year or even the year before, so Social Security does allow you to attribute part of the backpayment to prior years, if you know how to do it.

First, know that many people won’t owe taxes on their backpay at all because their income is so low. If you file your taxes individually and you received less than $25,000 in disability backpay and income during the year, you won’t owe any taxes on your Social Security disability income. Likewise, if you file your taxes jointly (with your spouse) and you received less than $32,000 in backpay and income during the year, you won’t owe any taxes on your disability income.

If your backpay and income are over these amounts, the IRS will allow you to allocate your past-due disability benefits to the year you should have received them, and you don’t have to “amend” your prior year tax returns to do it. Social Security should have sent you a form called SSA-1099. It will state in Box 3 how much of your disability backpay was owed to you for each of the previous years you accrued back pay.

You’ll still pay any taxes owed on these amounts with your current year’s tax return, but you’ll be able to figure out whether you owe taxes on each year’s disability backpayments using the amount of backpay attributable to the prior years and your other income in those years. In prior years where your income, including the backpay attributable to that year, was below $25,000 (or $32,000 if you’re married), you won’t owe any taxes on the disability backpay. IRS Publication 915: Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits describes this method in full and provides worksheets, but it can still be difficult to figure out how to do it. You may want to talk to a tax professional or use tax preparation software to make the calculations for you.

Note also that if you hired a disability attorney to help you win your Social Security benefits, you can deduct the cost of the attorney’s fee so you don’t have to pay taxes on this amount. For more information on this, see our article on the taxation of disability backpay.

Does Social Security Often Send You to a Mental Exam After DDS Finds You Disabled?

Question: Is it often that a claim is accepted by DDS, returned by SSA for medical evaluations, then denied based on the DDS contracted evaluator, instead of the claimants’ doctors records and notes? I am asking because this is what happened to me. The evaluator at the DDS field office had granted me disability based on my doctors’ medical records and notes for my fibromyalgia and degenerative disk disease. My doctors had also listed depression and anxiety disorder since my physician has been treating me for those for years, so SSA’s quality assurance returned my claim, stating I needed a psych eval. Then I received the denial based on the recent examination, so they let a five minute exam over rule years of my doctors’ records. I am wondering if this kind of thing is common.

Answer: I’m sorry to hear about what happened. It’s not common that quality control gets involved, and it’s even less common that quality control overturns an approval. Quality control is done by Social Security’s Disability Quality Branches (DQBs). The DQBs look at a random sample of decided disability claims from each Disability Determination Services (DDS) office (about 1% of cases). Your case was unlucky enough to get chosen. Social Security practices this quality control because the DDS offices are run by each state, with state employees’ making decisions. Because Social Security is a federal program, quality control checks the DDS decisions to make sure they conform to federal law. You can read more about it in our article on the disability program’s Quality Assurance Review Board.

Quality control may have sent you for a mental consultative exam to get a psychiatrist’s opinion on the severity of your depression or anxiety, though this shouldn’t have affected DDS’s opinion that your fibromyalgia and DDD were disabling. If it did, you should be able to win on appeal. Or, quality control may have sent you to a mental evaluation to get an opinion on whether you were exaggerating your symptoms or even malingering (faking). If the mental exam came back saying you were exaggerating or malingering, that could explain why quality control overturned DDS.

Either way, you need to find out what the written report from the consultative exam says. You can do this by requesting your disability file from Social Security. Because DDS found you disabled, you probably have a good chance of winning your claim if you appeal. I recommend you talk to a lawyer about your situation.

Should I hire a Social Security disability advocate or a Social Security disability lawyer?

Question: I’m about to apply for Social Security disability. I’ve seen an ad for disability advocates. What’s the difference between a disability advocate and a disability lawyer? Which should I hire?

Answer: The term Social Security disability advocate is used by both lawyers and nonlawyers who help people with their disability cases. However, many, if not most, individuals who advertise their services as “disability advocates” are not lawyers. Social Security is one of the few areas of law where it’s legal for someone to help and represent you at hearings without a license to practice law (thanks to a law passed in 2004 to reduce the backlog of Social Security disability cases).

Nonlawyer disability advocates must have a college degree or equivalent training, but they don’t need to go to law school or have any legal training. They do need to pass a Social Security exam on disability procedures and pass a criminal background check.

Disability lawyers, on the other hand, have graduated from three years of law school and passed the bar exam. They’ve learned to write legal briefs, question plaintiffs and witnesses at hearings, and properly read prior cases to support your claim.

Another difference: nonlawyer disability advocates aren’t subject to any rules of professional conduct requiring them to return phone calls promptly, charge you a fair amount for expenses, and keep you notified about your case. Disability lawyers, on the other hand, are, and are subject to discipline if they violate these ethical rules.

Also, only a licensed lawyer can appeal your Social Security disability claim to federal court, should you lose your appeal with Social Security.

You’d think that disability lawyers would be able to charge more for their services, but they can’t. Both nonlawyer and lawyer advocates are limited to the same percentage of your disability award (25%) and are paid only if they win. (Read more about how disability lawyers charge you here.)

Either way, if you have a hearing coming up, your chances of getting approved for benefits are higher if you’re represented by a lawyer or nonlawyer advocate. Nolo has a directory of disability advocates who can help you with your case; fill out a case evaluation form to have one of them contact you.

How can my doctor help me get disability benefits for fibromyalgia?

Question: I turned 50 this month of January 2014. I became ill in 2004. I have 10 years of medical records, doctors’ appointments, and tests. I went out on disability once in 2006; the doctor stated CFS/fibromyalgia. I lost my job in 2010…laid off due to low work they said, but it was due to illness. One doctor diagnosed me in 2005 with lime disease from tests….another said, Lyme and CFS/fibro.

I have upcoming appointments with pain management, allergies, and a second neurologist and rheumatologist. The first rheumatologist gave me physical therapy appointments…going to them, but suffer after with pain.

I suffer from weak legs that feel heavy and pins and needles, shakes and tremors, can’t walk more than 10-15 minutes, slowly. Also have tremors in arms and hands, stiff joints, radiating pain, sore painful joints, fatigue and burning shins. Acid reflux that can’t be cured, allergies that clogged my face with pain. Back constantly cracks and gives pain. Forearm and thumb move by themselves when writing or typing to long. Pain too. Constipation and other stomach issues are there as well.
How would I best go about asking my primary care physician (PCP) to help me? He knows my situation and has included notes about it in my records. If I send a letter to each doctor I have seen, are they required to include the letter in my records? This letter would describe my illness and how it affects me daily. Would my doctor charge me to fill out the RFC or write a letter? Would a chiropractor be helpful in my case?

Answer: You are doing the right thing by setting up doctors’ appointments. When you’re at the doctors’ offices, tell them as much as possible about your symptoms. You can follow up with a letter if you wish (whether or not the letter goes into your medical record, you can submit a letter and/or pain diary to Social Security with your disability application). When you apply for Social Security disability, the agency will request your complete medical records from all doctors that you list on your disability application.

Since you are applying for fibromyalgia, Social Security will be most interested in the opinion of the rheumatologist. Ask the rheumatologist to fill out a residual functional capacity report for you. You can use our blank RFC form for fibromyalgia. This form will elicit the exact answers from your doctor that Social Security needs to know; it was developed to correspond closely with Social Security’s criteria for getting disability based on fibromyalgia (see the details in Nolo’s article on Social Security’s requirements for getting disability for fibromyalgia). Here are some of the questions the fibro RFC asks of your doctor:

  • Does the patient meet the 2010 diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia as defined by the American College of Rheumatology?
  • Which of the patient’s tender points are positive for pain?
  • How long have the patient’s symptoms lasted?
  • How long can the patient walk, how much can the patient lift, etc.
  • Does the patient suffer from fibro symptoms such as fatigue, cognitive and memory problems, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety, and/or lack of restful sleep?

Some doctors will charge a fee for filling out this type of form (it is quite long), but since it will be critical to your disability case, it’s well worth it to spend a hundred dollars or so on it. If you have trouble getting your rheumatologist to fill out the form, read Nolo’s article on getting your doctor to help with your disability claim.

As to your other doctors, Social Security will not take into account a chiropractor’s opinion on your diagnosis, but may consider his or her opinion on how your activities are limited. Again, since rheumatologists are specialists in fibromyalgia, Social Security will give their opinion the most weight. If cognitive or mental issues add to your inability to work, a neurologist’s opinion may be helpful as well. Your PCP’s opinion can also be helpful, not so much on the diagnosis of fibromyalgia, but to supplement the rheumatologist’s opinion on the details of your claim. Your PCP can bolster your credibility (adding their opinion that you’re not a malingerer, or faker), give a longitudinal (historical) view of your symptoms, and can specify what your limitations are. Your PCP should fill out a second fibromyalgia RFC to record these details and submit it to Social Security as well.

Are State Short-Term Disability and Social Security Disability Benefits Taxed?

Question: I’ve been collecting state short-term disability benefits and it’s my understanding that my state doesn’t tax these benefits, so I didn’t think federal disability benefits would be taxable either. But someone told me this isn’t true and that I  will get taxed on my Social Security disability benefits. Who’s right?

Answer: The taxation of disability benefits is a complicated area. There are federal, state, and private disability benefits, plus two levels of possible taxation: federal and state. Let’s go through them one by one.

State taxation of state disability benefits. As to state short-term disability insurance (SDI or TDI), some states do tax their residents on these temporary disability benefits, so you got lucky. While California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island do not tax state-paid short-term disability benefits, New York and Hawaii partially tax these benefits, depending on how much your employer contributed to the cost of the insurance and how much you contributed to the cost of insurance. You can find out more in Nolo’s series of articles on state short-term disability.

Federal taxation of state disability benefits. The federal government doesn’t tax short-term disability benefits in California (unless the SDI payments are a substitute for unemployment insurance) nor in Rhode Island. The federal government will partially tax short-term disability benefits in New Jersey, New York, and Hawaii, since employers in those states pay for part of the benefit. So just because your state doesn’t tax your SDI benefits doesn’t mean the federal government won’t.

Federal taxation of federal benefits. Whether you’ll be taxed on Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits depends on whether you have other income. The benefits are definitely subject to tax, but if you (and/or your spouse) have less than a certain amount of income, the federal government won’t tax them at all.

But if you receive between $2,084 and $2,833 per month, counting all income, or between $2,667 and $3,666 if you’re married, then half of your Social Security disability benefits will be taxed. If you earn more than that, most of your SSDI benefits will be taxed. See Nolo’s article on Social Security disability taxation for the monthly income break points to see whether you can expect to pay taxes, and how much.

Of course, if you’ll actually be collecting disability benefits through the SSI program, these benefits won’t be taxed at all.

State taxation of federal benefits. Another wrinkle: Whether or not the federal government will tax you on your Social Security disability benefits, your state may tax your Social Security benefits. Most states don’t tax Social Security disability, but some do. Read our article on state taxation of disability benefits to see which category your state falls into.