insurance

Social Security disability often denied

If and when you apply for Social Security benefits, you may need to brace yourself for a long, hard fight.

In 2006, only 32.1 percent of disabled workers applying for Social Security disability benefits were found to be entitled to an award, according to the Social Security Administration's annual report. That figure includes applications reviewed at all stages in the process from the initial claim to reconsideration to the hearing stage.

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. -- a group made up of lawyers who represent people applying for benefits -- reports that in 2007, the SSA denied 65.4 percent of disability claims at the initial level and 87.3 percent of claims at the reconsideration level.

Ken Dobbs, a partner at Dobbs and Hutchison, a law firm in Chicago that specializes in Social Security benefit appeals, says that appeals cases, which typically hinge on disputes over the applicant's medical records and ability to work, can take more than a year to resolve. Once you receive a denial letter, you have 60 days to file for reconsideration, he says. If you are turned down again, you have 60 days to file another appeal.

"Now, you're waiting in line with 1.2 million other Americans to go see a judge," Dobbs says.

Administrative law judges preside over these hearings, which Dobbs says are "fairly informal proceedings." The judge's decision can be appealed to an administrative review board called the Appeals Council, and finally to U.S. District Court.

Dobbs has seen clients go bankrupt waiting for their Social Security disability benefits.

"They lose their homes," he says. "They move in with their mother. They divorce because it puts a great stress on family. They go through their 401(k) and their savings accounts. The lucky ones may have some private disability insurance. Maybe one out of 70 or so of my clients has private disability insurance."

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