Big box vs. boutique

boxesDoes bigger mean better? Sometimes, but sometimes not.

Every shopper knows there are times when you can’t find exactly what you want in a larger chain store, despite their rows upon rows of identical merchandise. Unique, one-of-a-kind items often are found only in smaller boutiques.

That philosophy doesn’t apply only to material goods — it can apply when you’re shopping around for a disability representative as well. Our law firm doesn’t have a dozen associates and floors of cubicles, but we do have a handful of attorneys and staff members who have chosen to concentrate solely on Social Security Disability and Veterans Disability. Rather than knowing only a little about every area of law, we all know a lot about those particular specialties.

Ever been to a big box store, only to discover there wasn’t a salesperson in sight? We pride ourselves on our accessibility. When you first come in for an appointment, you will meet face to face with an attorney, not someone who simply records your  information without offering any guidance. When you make followup telephone calls regarding your claim, there’s a good chance the first person you speak with will be able to answer your question and if not, will be able to quickly find the co-worker who can. You won’t be passed on to a half-dozen employees before your issue is resolved.

Another way to appreciate what we do is to consider your taste buds. Mass-produced food is made via an assembly-line process, where burgers always look and taste exactly the same. True flavor only comes out when food is made to order. We can tailor our handling of your disability claim to your specific needs and conditions, whether it be asking your doctor to complete a form related to your health problems or knowing what questions to ask about how your health affects your daily life. We have real conversations with our clients. You aren’t just a claim number to us!

Because we limit our practice to Northwest Indiana and Chicago and its suburbs, we aren’t stretched too thin and have time to devote to thorough preparation of your case.  Many people think that hiring a national disability company means retaining an attorney, but that isn’t necessarily true. Disability reps aren’t required to be attorneys.  Another thing to consider is that some law firms with national practices farm out hearings to attorneys near the client’s local office. Wouldn’t it be better to have the same firm represent you all the way through?

In fact, a New York Disability blogger recently mentioned the Dec. 19 bankruptcy filing of Binder & Binder, a national disability advocacy firm, as an example of why smaller is better. That company began as a small law practice but grew to mega-size, switching from attorneys to non-attorney advocates. In 2010, the founders sold a large stake of the company to a private-equity firm, and now the company reportedly plans to lay off more than half its staff and shrink its caseload to less than a third of what it is now.

So when you’re looking for someone to represent you in you Social Security or Veterans Disability claim, think about the difference between “big box” and “boutique.” You may find that thinking small is the right approach for you.

 

 

 

 

Get What You Deserve — From Your Rep!

handshakeLast month, we detailed things claimants can do to aid themselves in the disability process, even when they have a representative to help. Now, we want to explain what OUR responsibilities are to our clients.

First and foremost, our job is to file any relevant appeals and represent you at any hearings, along with submitting the proper paperwork to complete the process. We owe it to you to do this in a timely fashion (provided you give us the materials in time). We excel at meeting deadlines!

One of our other major responsibilities is obtaining your medical documentation. This is not something we leave for you to do! We know the relevant dates to request, we know what departments to contact, we know the forms to submit to make this process go smoothly. Clients sometimes show up with stacks of medical records they spent a lot of time and money to get and then say, “I did all the work!” There’s no need for our clients to run around to all their physicians; it’s unnecessary and the materials they get are often duplicates of what we already have or requested.

We owe it to our clients to be persistent and to fight for them. We don’t take no for an answer and can bring up facets of your case you haven’t even thought of. We will be your disability bulldog!

When it comes to our clients, our lips are sealed. After decades in this business, there isn’t much we haven’t heard or that shocks us, and whatever you tell one of our staff members remains confidential. So don’t be embarrassed about conditions, side effects, work history, substance abuse, etc.

Keeping accurate records is our lifeblood. We pride ourselves on being organized and we keep a log of all correspondence, conversations, filings, etc. for each client so we can check and double-check. And yes, we have a backup if computer systems fail.

Because we are registered representatives with the Social Security Administration, we have access to their electronic record-keeping system. This often means we can get information on  your case more quickly and easily than if you wait on hold for an overworked SSA rep.

Last, but not least, is communication with you. If you don’t hear from us, it’s probably because there isn’t anything to tell (unless you haven’t kept your contact info current and we can’t reach you). We call you when we get copies of forms that SSA needs you to complete, or if they schedule exams, when a date has been set for your hearing and of course, if we get word you have been approved or denied. We also follow through and make sure you receive your payments. Any questions? Give us a holler. We may not be able to return your call immediately, but will do so as quickly as we can.

 

10 Ways to be the Perfect Client — or Claimant

listPeople hire attorneys or representatives to help with Social Security Disability claims because they want help with the process, and we’re glad to provide that! But there are some things that clients (or claimants who choose to handle the process on their own), can do to relieve the stress of applying and to make things run more smoothly. These tips won’t necessarily speed things along or guarantee benefits, but they will prevent unnecessary delays and avoid complications. So whether you sign up with a representative or go it alone, here are some things to keep in mind.

Be prompt. Attorneys have other clients, and so do Social Security offices, so please be courteous and arrive on time. This also means less chance of being rushed during  your appointment. It’s always better to schedule an appointment rather than walk in unannounced. With law firms, this means guaranteeing someone is available to answer your questions; with SSA, it means a shorter wait time for you.

Be compliant. Some actions will be required on your part, such as attending disability exams or completing reports. Not cooperating in this means at best, longer delays and at worst, outright denial of your claim.

Avoid last-minute deadlines. Don’t wait until a few days before your appeal is due to file. If you’re looking for an attorney or other rep, the first one you see may not be able to take your case. And remember SSA offices have shorter business hours: until 3 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and until noon on Wednesdays. The process can take long enough as it is, so don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

Have your act together. By this, we mean gather your paperwork. If you’re sent a form to complete before an appointment, don’t bring the blank form with you to the appt. and expect to fill it out there. If you are given a list of required documentation, gather the papers days early so you know exactly where it is and can bring it with you.

Fess up. Don’t try to make your claim sound more valid by exaggerating details (or omitting them), or not admitting you were turned down by a previous rep if you’re asked. Just because someone else declined to represent you doesn’t mean everyone will.  Medical records are the backbone of your claim, so all details will come out in the end.

Keep us posted! Don’t try to avoid the inevitable by not telling your lawyer, rep or Social Security about important changes, such as if you return to work. One of the worst things is finding out close to a hearing that a client has been working.

Stay on topic. Whether it’s on a disability report or in person, stick to a brief explanation about your conditions. More is not necessarily better! Also avoid complaining about the disability process. You may have valid points, but both your rep and/or Social Security personnel are focused on getting your claim processed, not making sweeping changes at that point in time.

See doctors! Nothing is more important. We know it can seem impossible without insurance, but whether it’s free clinics, Medicaid, etc. — medical records are a must.

Too many cooks… Obviously, some disability applicants will need people to drive them to appointments or need a friend or family member to accompany them to help recall details or ask questions, or lend moral support. But having other people tagging along often is not necessary and sometimes unwieldy. Have someone watch your children if at all possible, unless you know that a particular office is set up for kids.

Can’t we all just get along? Most reps and Social Security employees are doing their best to help you, but sometimes mistakes are made. Please understand when that happens. If you encounter unacceptable behavior, ask to see a supervisor.

Coming next month: what YOU have a right to expect from a Social Security Disability attorney.

 

The Case of the Disappearing Credits (and other Social Security mysteries)

detective“I worked for 20 years! Why don’t I qualify for disability?”

We often hear from clients outraged because they spent many years in the workforce, but don’t meet the Social Security guidelines to have their conditions considered in disability claims. We also hear complaints because they know of someone who did not work nearly as long, but who is receiving benefits. How can this happen? Let us explain.

As a person works, they earn “credits” for Social Security (assuming they paid Social Security taxes through their job). These credits are based on a person’s wages. This year, a worker receives one credit for each $1,200 in earnings, up to a maximum of four credits per year. The amount of salary needed to earn a credit goes up slightly every year as average earnings increase. There are special rules for those whose net annual income is less than $400.  Also, while military personnel earn credits the same way civilian workers do, they may get extra credits under certain conditions.

Some other rules apply to specific circumstances, such as domestic or farm employment or work for a church-affiliated organization that does not pay Social Security taxes. But we digress.

You need to accrue a certain number of credits to be eligible for disability benefits, depending when you became disabled. Becoming disabled before age 24 means you need six credits (1-1/2 years of work) in the three years prior to stopping work. Those ages 24-30 when the disability starts need credits for half the time between age 21 and the onset of the disability. Those 31 or older usually require at least 20 credits in the 10 years before the disability began.

But as a person goes without working, their disability coverage through Social Security starts to lapse because they stopped paying Social Security taxes — in other words, your credits disappear. If you stopped working six years ago, your disability coverage ended one year ago; five years ago, it ends about now; four years ago, it ends a year from now. If you’ve been out of work longer that that, your date last insured was even earlier. This mean that if your disabling condition(s) began after that, you would not be eligible for disability no matter how bad the impairment. People whose financial resources are very low, however, can be eligible for disability on that basis without ever having worked.

Confused? That’s understandable. One of our attorneys would be happy to meet with you face to face and unravel the mystery of Social Security disability. Let us take a crack at your case!

How Long Will it Take to Get Disability?

calendarOne of the first questions we are asked is, “How long does the Social Security Disability process take?” While each claimant’s situation is unique, there are some general time frames that most people can expect.

The first step, obviously, is to file an application (either in person, via phone or online). After preliminary processing by your local Social Security field office, the claim goes to the state Disability Determination Bureau (in Indiana, that’s Indianapolis; in Illinois, Springfield). Adjudicators there request and examine claimants’ medical records. They also may send claimants additional paperwork to complete and/or schedule exams for them with physicians under contract with DDS. That agency then issues an initial decision, which takes an average of 3 to 4 months (but sometimes as long as 6).

If your initial claim is approved, congratulations! But a great many are denied. In that case, a claimant has 60 days to appeal, which is called a Request for Reconsideration. The information required at this stage is not as extensive as when first applying, because Social Security is looking only for updated medical information pertinent to the claim. Again, DDS will request and study medical reports provided by doctors you have seen since filing your application, and additional paperwork and exams are also possible. This part of the process also takes an average of 3 to 4 months.

Sometimes claims are approved at the Reconsideration stage, but a substantial number are denied. This doesn’t mean all hope is lost. A claimant can appeal again (also required within 60 days) by filing a Request for Hearing, which involves providing the latest medical information. This is where the process really bogs down, however, because it usually takes a disability hearing office about one year to schedule a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. The majority of clients we represent at hearings are awarded benefits.

Some claimants must pursue the process even further. Should an ALJ deny benefits, the claim can be appealed to the Appeals Council, which may decide to send the claim back to the judge for another hearing. AC decisions take about 12 to 18 months. If the claim is denied yet again, it can be appealed at the federal level, where a decision takes at least 18 months.

While that is a worse-case scenario, it’s clear that getting disability is often not a quick process. If you would like some help, please call us for an appointment. We see clients at every step, from those who have not yet applied to those who are considering a federal appeal. Disability attorney fees come from a client’s back benefits, not billable hours, so don’t delay!

Alcoholism and Disability: Falsehoods vs. Facts

broken bottleOne of the things we frequently hear from clients frustrated by the Social Security Disability system is that alcoholics are so easily awarded benefits based solely on their drinking problem. In fact, this has not been true for years.

The criteria related to alcoholism changed in 1996, after Congress required SSA to remove alcoholism (along with drug addiction) as a basis for disability. That resulted in many people who had been granted benefits under the old rule having their benefits revoked. This does not mean, however, that alcoholics can’t receive disability — only that they must have other ailments separate from their addiction to alcohol.

This is not to say that alcohol disorders should not be taken seriously. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol kills 3.3 million people worldwide annually, with consumption of alcohol increasing. If you count drunken driving, violence involving alcohol and other alcohol-related medical issues, alcohol gets the blame for 1 death every 10 seconds, a staggering statistic. It has connections to more than 200 health conditions: cirrhosis, hepatitis, cancer, TB, HIV, pneumonia, heart disease and diabetes.

If your condition(s) relate to alcohol, it’s necessary to prove that the medical issues would continue even if you were no longer drinking. Another hurdle exists for those with a history of alcohol abuse but who say they have given up drinking — they need to prove they have, in fact, stopped. A person can get benefits even if alcohol originally caused the ailment, provided they won’t get any better even without drinking. Woe to those who don’t quit, however, if SSA finds that drinking makes their health problems worse — they will NOT be awarded benefits. Also, if you are awarded benefits but SSA believes drinking would impair your ability to handle finances, they will require you to have a representative payee.

If you have a health problem related to alcohol but have been denied disability, we can help determine if you have grounds  for an appeal. But keep in mind that medical records are key to any Social Security disability case, so there will be no hiding alcohol use or the fact that it might be material to your condition. Honesty is the best policy!

They’re baaack — Social Security paper statements

SSA photo
In today’s online world, a recent announcement by the Social Security Administration that it would resume mailing paper earnings statements came as somewhat of a surprise.

For those who don’t remember, these documents used to arrive in your mailbox annually, spelling out how much your monthly estimated Social Security benefits would be at retirement or if you become disabled. They also detail amounts due to family members and survivors and list your wages year by year, as well as provide an explanation of how benefits are earned and figured.

This yearly information was a good way to see what you could expect in the future, but in 2011, the SSA stopped mailing the statements as a cost-cutting measure. People who wanted to see how much they would be due in retirement, or if they qualify for disability based on their work history, had to view their statements by creating an online account at the agency web site, www.ssa.gov.

But this spring, the SSA announced that beginning in September, it will once again mail statements every five years in the years a person reaches the ages of 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60, provided they are not already registered to receive online statements or if they are not already receiving benefits.

However you choose to receive your statement — whether by waiting for it to arrive in the mail or by creating an online account accessible to you 24/7 — everyone should take time occasionally to review their statement for accuracy. For individuals who have filed for Social Security Disability or who intend to file, it is especially important to make sure the information the SSA has is correct, because a gap in earnings can affect the amount of your potential benefits or even determine whether you are still eligible (people who lack enough past earnings to qualify for disability based on their work history may still be eligible if their financial resources fall below a certain level, however).

If you don’t want to wait your turn to receive a paper statement but lack computer access, your local SSA field office will be able to determine your eligibility and arrange to have a paper copy of your statement sent to you.

If you are eligible for disability and thinking about applying, or if you have applied and been denied due to medical reasons, and if you would like help navigating through the disability process, our office of knowledgeable professionals can assist you. Disability is the only thing we do! This means that we have the time, resources and experience to ensure your claim is processed as efficiently and thoroughly as possible.

So whether you prefer snail mail or cyberspace, your earnings statement is a good starting point on your route to SSA Disability. And if you need help after that, make us your next stop!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the new Scully Disability Law website

iStock_000007651769LargeWelcome to our new website!

In an effort to make our services more accessible, we have launched a new website that is user-friendly and responsive to various types of electronic devices, including smart phones, tablets, laptops and other portable devices.

It is our goal to make our site your resource for all things related to Social Security Disability, Supplement Security Income and Veterans Benefits. Please check back often, as we will be providing helpful information about all of these topics, including the latest news about legislation, case law and/or regulation changes that might affect your disability claim.

We look forward to sharing this information with you!