Top Myths I’ve Heard About Social Security Disability Benefits

In 20 years of representing disabled people, here are a few of the top myths I’ve repeatedly heard from my clients (and want-to-be clients). These first four are related to people’s cynicism about the program’s integrity.

People who have nothing wrong with them get disability benefits.

It seems that everyone thinks that they know a neighbor or relative who gets disability benefits who has little or nothing wrong with them. Actually the disability standard is very difficult to meet. One must show evidence of medical conditions that have objective test results, clinical findings, or signs that result in limitations that will last for at least 12 months (or end in death). Some medical problems are hidden (or can be) part of the time. A person may appear to function without any apparent difficulty some of the time but not consistently enough to sustain work. We often just don’t know enough about someone else to judge how impaired they are. That’s not to say that there are not any non-disabled people receiving benefits. But these cases are exceptions, not the rule. Wrong judgments can be made, and sometimes people who were once disabled get better but keep getting benefits until Social Security catches up to the reality that they got better.

Everybody gets denied at first.

(No one said the myths are consistent.) Actually, statistically, nearly a third of applications are granted by Social Security’s first determination.

I could get benefits if I had a different skin color.

Seriously? I’ve heard this more than I’d like to say. If there is any advantage to having a particular skin color, I have not figured out which color it is after 20 years of representing claimants.

I would be able to get benefits if I was addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Actually, substance abuse makes it much harder to establish disability. Before 1996, the law allowed disability based on substance abuse. But since then, you are not disabled if substance abuse is a “material factor” affecting why you can’t work. When substance abuse is present, it complicates a claim and gives a Social Security decision-maker one more possible way to deny your claim.

The Social Security program is going broke, and there won’t be any money to pay benefits in the future.

First, without any adjustments, Social Security is currently on a path to be unable to meet 100% of its obligations in 2034.  But even without any changes, Social Security is projected to be able to pay almost 80% of its promised benefits in 2034.  Second, there are reasonable solutions that can strengthen the financial position of the retirement and disability programs.  If our current elected federal representatives cannot effectively address the problem, your votes and political participation can help bring change.

I am more likely to win benefits if I exaggerate my symptoms to Social Security.

Maybe the quickest way to lose your credibility and ruin a perfectly good claim is exaggeration.  Social Security doctors will review your medical records to see if they match up with what you say about your medical conditions.  If there is not a reasonable match, your chance of winning plummets.

The more disabled I am, the higher my benefit should be.

For Social Security purposes you are either “disabled” or “not disabled.”  There is no in between, and there are no extra benefits for greater severity.   If you are “disabled,” the amount of your monthly benefit is determined by other factors.  Disability insurance benefit amounts are determined by earnings history.  Supplemental Security Income amounts are determined by your financial status, sometimes including the resources and income of family members.

I need to decide which of my medical conditions that I should apply for.

Actually, you should tell Social Security about all of your medical conditions that cause work-related limitations.  Social Security must consider the combined effect of all of your medical impairments.  It would be a mistake to not tell Social Security about all of your conditions.

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