Important: We updated this article in January 2023 with the most current and correct info available. If you’re disabled and cannot work, getting denied Social Security disability benefits can be devastating. Many Americans depend on SSD benefits to make ends meet during difficult times. And while millions apply for disability benefits each year, roughly 81% are initially denied. In fact, basic paperwork errors are among the top Social Security disability application mistakes first-time claimants can make. If the Social Security Administration (SSA) denies your claim, you’ll get a letter in the mail explaining why.
Understanding why they denied your claim can help you correct any potential Social Security disability application mistakes before you appeal. Of course, the SSA’s appeals process can take a long, long time. Why go through all that if you can submit the right Social Security disability application paperwork the first time? Whether you’re a first-time applicant or about to appeal, don’t make these five Social Security disability application mistakes.
Top 5 Social Security Disability Application Mistakes
Mistake #1: Filing a Social Security disability application while you’re still working (even if it’s just part-time).
The first thing the SSA looks at when reviewing your disability claim is whether you’re currently working or not. Working part-time only or earning very low pay doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be denied SSDI. However, if you’re working full-time or doing a lot of contract work, the SSA will deny your disability claim.
The reason why? The SSA’s own definition of disability is: “the inability to perform substantial gainful activity (SGA).” For disability applicants, SGA is defined as any work that pays more than a certain dollar amount in monthly income. In 2023, that amount is $1,470 for disabled applicants who aren’t blind and $2,460 for those who are blind. If your monthly income’s higher (including child support, alimony, interest, etc.), the SSA says you’re not “disabled.” In other words, your claim gets denied because you “are able to engage in competitive employment in the national economy.”
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and the SSA will consider each applicant’s individual work and income history. But as a general rule, the SSA won’t even review your application’s medical evidence if you earn too much money.
Mistake #2: Applying for benefits before your doctor confirms you’ll be out of work for one year or longer (12 continuous months).
If your condition won’t make you unable to work at least 12 months (or result in death), don’t file a Social Security disability application. Your claim will automatically be denied if your medical condition is expected to significantly improve in less than 12 months. But do apply if your doctor says your condition won’t improve in less than 12 months or is permanent. This criterion exists because the SSA hopes you’ll recover from your illness or disability and then rejoin the workforce.
Mistake #3: Expecting the consultative exam doctor to decide you’re disabled from just that one visit.
Before the SSA makes your determination, a claim examiner and physician consult with each other to assess your health. The SSA trains all claim examiners in Social Security law and regulations. These examiners decide whether to approve or deny your claim, not your doctor or the physicians at your consultative exam. Of course, the claim examiner and committee physicians will give special consideration to your own doctor’s opinions. That said, clinical observations, test results, or other supporting medical evidence must confirm your doctor’s original assessment.
Essentially, your doctor must show how your diagnosis limits your ability to work. You’ll only see a consultative doctor if your Social Security disability application doesn’t include enough convincing evidence. You’ll get a letter from Disability Determination Services (DDS) with the Social Security doctor’s name, contact information and your appointment details.
Mistake #4: Missing doctor visits, medical treatments, or not filling your prescriptions.
If you do receive a consultative exam letter, you absolutely must confirm your appointment and arrive on time. Cooperating fully is essential, and failure to do so will likely result in denial of your claim. Whether you follow your doctor’s guidelines and take prescribed medication or not will affect how the SSA views your condition. Often, a Social Security disability application is denied because the claimant didn’t take medication or follow a doctor’s treatment plan. Your credibility as a claimant hinges on your willingness to follow your doctor’s advice.
Mistake #5: Not getting professional help with your Social Security disability application (unless you’re terminally ill).
Filing your Social Security disability application is like doing your yearly income taxes. While you technically can file a claim on your own, it doesn’t always mean you should. Understanding legal requirements can improve your odds, especially if you can’t afford to wait for an appeal. An experienced attorney knows what information the SSA needs, the best way to present it, and how to maximize your benefits. You’ll also get your first benefit payment faster than if you apply on your own.
The only time you won’t benefit from legal help is if your condition is on the Compassionate Allowances (CAL) list. This initiative helps people whose medical conditions obviously meet the SSA’s definition of disability get SSD benefits quickly. If you have one or more CAL conditions, you can likely file your own Social Security disability application. Still, it may not hurt to get legal assistance if you find the application process too hard.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
Filing your claim through a Social Security attorney nearly triples your chances of the SSA awarding you benefits. If the SSA doesn’t approve your application, you pay the lawyer $0 for legal assistance. And if you do win, you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee. Those who apply with legal assistance through our website get more than $13,000 in SSD backpay, on average, as well as monthly benefits.
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Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.