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Q. I am 55 years old and have had the same job for about 35 years. I was laid off about six months ago. I have tried looking for other work, but so far I have been unsuccessful. I suppose I could find work at low-end entry-level jobs. But I’d really like something similar to my old job and one that offers similar pay and benefits. However, my job search is hindered by the fact that I’ve had severe back pain for many years. I always worked in spite of this pain. My wife and family say that I should file for Social Security disability benefits. So far, I’ve been reluctant. What chance do you think I would have of qualifying for disability?

A. Well, I can tell you that you will have zero chance if you never file! In other words, it certainly doesn’t hurt to apply for disability benefits. What’s to lose? At the most, maybe just a couple of hours of your time.

But here is the key thing you need to understand about Social Security disability law: You don’t qualify for benefits because you have a disability. You qualify for benefits if you have a disability that keeps you from working. The inability to work is the deciding factor. There are millions of people who have “disabilities” — everything from blindness to heart trouble to cancer — but they are still working. Because of that, they don’t qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Specifically, the law says that to get disability, you must have an impairment that is so severe that it is expected to keep you from working for at least a year, or a disability that is terminal.

My hunch is if you were offered a job tomorrow, especially one that paid you as much as your old job did, you’d take it. In other words, Social Security law possibly might consider you more “unemployed” than “disabled.”

But having said that, I come back to my original response: It certainly doesn’t hurt to file for such benefits. Tens of thousands of folks in your shoes do so every month.

Applying for Social Security disability involves filling out a bunch of forms. You can do so online at www.socialsecurity.gov, or you can call 800-772-1213 and apply over the phone. You will also be given the option of filing in person at your local Social Security Administration office.

You will be asked to provide names of doctors and others who have treated you. SSA will contact those medical sources to get your records. There is a pretty good chance you will be asked to see a “Social Security doctor” at the government’s expense. Then you will wait two or three months for the agency’s decision. If it’s yes, the checks start rolling in. (The amount would essentially be your age 66 retirement benefit.) If it’s no, you can either appeal or continue looking for work and accept the fact that, at least according to Social Security law, you are unemployed and not disabled.

Q. I am planning to file for disability benefits because of a bad case of fibromyalgia. However, I’ve been told I will need a lawyer, or I will never get benefits. What’s your recommendation?

A. You may need a lawyer someday, but certainly not now. Filing your first claim for Social Security disability benefits is just a matter of filling out a bunch of forms and then sitting back and waiting a couple of months for SSA to decide whether you qualify for benefits. You could hire a lawyer to help fill out those forms and then perhaps hold your hand while you wait for the decision. But that really would be a waste of money.

If your claim is denied, and assuming you disagree with that decision, you should ask SSA to review your case. Even at that point, a lawyer probably isn’t needed. That’s because often times the first appeal is simply a cursory review of your case by SSA officials.

However, if they turn you down again, then you can file another appeal. This second level of appeal usually results in a hearing before what SSA calls an “administrative law judge.” It’s at this point that many people hire lawyers. If you look in the Yellow Pages of the phone directory for any decent-sized city, you will find dozens of attorneys who specialize in Social Security disability cases.

You don’t really need representation. With enough preparation, you could go to the hearing yourself and make your case before the judge. But statistics show that people represented by lawyers at Social Security disability hearings stand a better chance of winning their cases. The downside to “lawyering up” is that you will have to turn over 25 percent of any retroactive Social Security payments to your attorney.

Finally, here is a bit of advice that may help you get Social Security disability benefits. When you file, don’t just list the fibromyalgia problem you mentioned in your e-mail as your only disability. Put down every medical and mental problem you might have, no matter how trivial it may seem to you — whether it’s a little hearing problem, trouble sleeping, mental anxiety or whatever. Many times it is a combination of impairments that puts a person over the edge and makes him or her qualify for benefits.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Reprinted with permission from Alternet

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