I am Andrew Kinney, an attorney practicing exclusively Social Security disability law at Hoglund Law Offices. I do about 400 or more hearings per year. I am licensed in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York. Our team of Hoglund Lawyers travels across the country handling Social Security disability claims, and we currently have offices in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio.
Of the tens of thousands of calls to Hoglund Law Offices just last year, some calls about Social Security disability benefits came from people who were still working, but had serious medical problems that were going to cost them their jobs.
Losing your ability to work is frightening. It is enough not to feel well. Disability understandably takes a toll. For some, being unable to work can feel demeaning. I wish it didn’t. Other than getting the right help from doctors, there is not much you can do. For all, planning for disability is a difficult journey in need of a clear path. As a lawyer practicing in the area of Social Security disability benefits law, what do I tell them? If you or someone you know is facing disability, I hope the discussion below can help.
(I’ve formatted this “planning for disability” blog just like a phone conversation. Here is a typical first call for help.)
“Andrew, new client call on line 704.”
“OK”. I put my headset on.
Line 704: “This is attorney Andrew Kinney. Can I help you with questions about getting Social Security disability benefits?”
A hesitant female voice comes on the line. “Yes. My name is ________. I’ve been diagnosed with _________. I’ve started having more problems, so I’ve reduced my hours. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep this job much longer. I have some questions about Social Security benefits.”
“Sure. This is a difficult situation. What hours are you working per week now?”
“About 25 hours per week, but I’ve just used up my family medical leave.”
“Are you making over $1,000 gross before taxes a month?”
Pause. “Yes. I’m about at $1,200. But my supervisor just told me that I’ll need to go to 20 hours per week. I might be fired. We’re talking about it this Friday.”
“At 20 hours per week, would you make under $1,000 per month once you are at 20 hours per week?”
“Yes.” her voice is pained. “Or it might be zero soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m also going to lose my insurance.”
“That’s why Social Security set up these benefits. You have been paying for this federal disability insurance out of your paychecks. Now, the reason I’m asking about your monthly income is that Social Security has income limits for people that apply. In 2011 and last year, you are allowed to make up to $1,000 per month. If you have been making more for 3 months in a row, Social Security decides that you are working. People can apply for Social Security benefits if they are making less than this amount per month because of medical problems, and they expect they won’t get better for a year or more.”
“So when can I apply for Social Security benefits?”
I answer her question: “When your monthly earnings go down below the level I mentioned.”
“Well, I’ll know soon enough. I just can’t keep this job up. I’m making mistakes at work. My friends who know what’s going on are trying to cover for me. It is getting too hard.” She is exasperated.
“Well, it’s good you called. This way you can know what to do next. What I tell people is that they should work as long as they can within their doctor’s limits. When you reasonably can’t work much more, you’ll know. Your doctor will also know that you are trying to keep working. A judge’ll ask why you stopped working anyway, so trying your best is good. As for the legal standard of what a disability is, Social Security allows benefits if you can prove with medical treatment that your medical problems will keep you from working full-time for a year or more.”
She responds: “My doctor told me that he doesn’t know how I’ve been able to work at all.” She laughs a little. “He said that he normally doesn’t believe in Social Security disability benefits, but he knows what is going on with me. He said he would help me.”
“That’s good. Tell me about your medical issues.” She explains her situation, including a recent surgery. I then explain the appeal process and how our law offices can help. I get her address and other information.
Evauating her situation, I tell her, “OK. I think we can help you. First, though, keep in mind that your application needs to wait until you are in a new month when you are not making too much. Second, remember that we help people apply. So, keep our number handy. Also, when are you next seeing your doctor?”
She pauses. “I have an appointment in about 3 weeks.”
“Good. If your hours go down like we discussed or you are let go, let your doctor know at that appointment that you might need a letter from him soon that helps explain your diagnoses and limitations. These are called narrative letters, and this will outline what’s wrong. Letters from treating doctors can be your best chance of approval at the application stage. We expect, however, to go to a hearing.”
“I think he’ll write a letter.” I explain the logistics of this letter. “What about insurance? If I’m fired, how will I keep going to my doctors?”
“You need to keep treating for your medical problems, especially if you start a disability benefits claim. Here are some things to do. You should write these things down: First, you might look into getting insurance through your husband. Second, as you stop working, find out from your employer how to extend your current insurance through COBRA coverage. You may be able to extend this longer than others due to disability. Third, ask about private disability benefits, either short or long-term. Some employers have them. Fourth, make sure you have copies of your employer’s benefits plans. Finally, you should look into health coverage options through your county. A call to your county can help you understand how that works.”
“Thanks. I’ll do these things.”
“Well, this should cover things for now. Also, remember that some people living off savings can have early withdrawal penalties from their 401k. Ask the IRS about having this penalty waived due to disability. If this issue comes up, contact a local IRS office about the process.”
“Thanks.” She sounds a little relieved.
“Thank you for calling. As I said, keep our number handy. Let’s hope that you can keep working, but you’ve got a plan.”
* * *
Hopefully, the dialogue above — which happens a lot in our practice — helps you. Planning for Social Security disability is possible.
One last thought. At times, our legal judgment plays into the timing of a Social Security benefits application. Once in a great while, my clients haven’t been treating as they stopped working. In these cases, I may have a client delay his or her application a little while until they can get to see their doctors. I’ve seen applications denied for lack of medical evidence, which is a shame for real medical problems. Note that delaying applications, however, can also cause a loss of possible benefits.
Legal advice about this process is important. So if you want legal advice, you need to call a law firm — not an “advocacy” group or corporation of “representatives” that processes claims. Whoever you call, ask if they are a law firm up front. Otherwise, you will not get legal advice. You have a right to choose an experienced lawyer. Get one. At Hoglund Law Offices, we charge only a quarter of back-pay if you win. You pay no money up front. Ever.
My normal disclaimer: You should get legal advice based on your unique situation, so make sure to call Hoglund Law Offices at 1-800-850-7867 or visit HoglundLaw.com if you have questions like this. Please don’t rely on this one example. If you call us, you can plan for disability. Good luck.
Andrew W. Kinney, Esq.