For those seeking Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, consulting a Social Security disability attorney can be a crucial first step.
SSI is a means-based program for those who are 65 or older, or blind or disabled at any age, and who have limited income and resources. Typically, you must not exceed a monthly income considered Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA).
For non-blind persons in 2020, this SGA limit is $1,260 per month.
This can include income from employment, but also sometimes other income and assets.
Benefits aren’t guaranteed even to those with a financial need. You must medically prove that your condition meets the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s definition of a severe disability that prevents you from working.
It‘s good to be aware from the start that most claimants are initially denied benefits and must go through an appeals process.
The timeline of consideration by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and multiple appeals hearings—to the time a final decision is made in your case—can take months if not years.
There are some exceptions that will allow your case to be expedited.
SSI claims can be expedited for those with …
- Dire need
- A military service-connected disability
- A disability which meets an SSA listing (compassionate allowances)
- A terminal condition, such as AIDS, late-stage cancer, or heart failure
However, proving you meet one of these criteria is complex and specific to each case.
The right attorney will be able to help you navigate your SSI case from start to finish. In most cases, you don’t pay an attorney’s fee up front for a Social Security case.
Instead, your lawyer will be paid a percentage of your past-due benefits—up to 25% or $6,000—only if you win your case. Federal law strictly regulates this fee structure. You and your lawyer will both sign a “contingency fee agreement” as to the specific payment terms.
While consulting a lawyer for your SSI case is always a good idea, they’ll need you to bring certain documents so they can effectively guide you through your case.
Documents to bring to your first meeting with an SSI attorney include …
- Medical Records and Doctors’ Written Opinions
- Work History
- An SSI Benefits Denial Notice (If You’ve Been Denied)
These are documents you’ll need to prove your disability with the SSA. Let’s take a brief look at each of these.
Medical Records and Doctors’ Written Opinions
While your attorney will be able to obtain these for you, it’s helpful if you have access to your relevant medical records and can bring them when you meet. They will be needed for your initial claim as well as any potential appeals hearings.
You’ll want to obtain medical records that show the history of your condition and how it has progressed over time, as well as the most recent records to show the current severity.
The SSA will also want to see a history of:
- Testing, imaging, and regular examinations
- Doctors and specialists you’ve seen for your condition
- Treatments, and how they affected your condition
Written opinions from doctors outlining the severity and limitations of your disability can also play a crucial role in winning your benefits.
There are two main ways for your disability to qualify for benefits:
- Meet a narrow disability listing defined by the SSA.
- Your disability prevents you from doing past work (up to 15 years) or any job in the US economy.
If you don’t fit one of the SSA’s listings, you must medically prove your condition limits you based on what are called “Residual Functional Capacities,” or RFC. Doctors’ written opinions can illustrate these limitations.
Thus, it’s important to share these documents with your attorney.
They can help you understand what evidence the SSA will be looking for, to judge the severity of your disability, and seek additional evidence if necessary.
The SSA will examine your work history up to 15 years in the past.
You’ll be asked to fill out a work history report.
They’ll decide if your disability prevents you from doing this past work. A vocational expert may also attempt to determine if you can do any jobs in the U.S. economy.
Compile a list of your employment history within the past 15 years, so your attorney can help you understand the conclusions the SSA might make about your ability to work.
If you have any documented evidence of your disability impacting your work, show this to your attorney as well.
For instance, you might want to get a note from your employer if you’ve been reducing hours at work, or if your disability limits you from doing certain work tasks.
Some other relevant work documents may include:
- Evidence for accommodation requests at work
- Personnel files showing an impact on your performance or attendance
- A Work Activity Form to show “subsidized employment” (earning more than your work activities are worth) or that you couldn’t maintain employment
Ask your attorney about other employment documentation you may need for your particular case.
An SSI Benefits Denial Notice (If You’ve Been Denied)
A benefits denial means you’ve already applied for SSI and have moved onto the appeals stage of your case.
When you meet with your attorney, bring your benefits denial notice. This letter explains why the SSA denied your claim, which will help you and your legal team decide the best approach to appealing the denial.
For example: If the SSA denied your claim because there wasn’t enough medical evidence, your appeals may focus on providing the necessary evidence.
The levels of appeal your attorney can guide you through include:
- Reconsideration by the SSA
- A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
- Reconsideration by the Appeals Council
- Federal court
If your Supplemental Security Income claim has been denied, or you’re thinking about filing and don’t know where to start, Affleck and Gordon can help. We’ve been helping people in Georgia just like you for over 40 years. Sign up for a free case evaluation here, or call us (404) 795-4978.