I am in my thirties, healthy, and able to work. If you are like me, you might not even be aware of your social security benefits or thinking about what would happen if you became disabled. Local attorney Jeanette Laffoon says unfortunately this is the case for many people and they end up falling through the cracks. At her law office, Maddox & Laffoon, she and her partner Stephen Maddox are working to educate people about their benefits. “If you’re legitimately unable to work because of an impairment you should be on the benefit. That’s what it’s there for, that’s why you’ve paid your taxes,” she tells me.
Why hire an attorney for social security disability benefits?
At first glance, the system can seem a little daunting and very complicated, even though Jeanette says it’s set up to be user friendly. Maddox & Laffoon are there to help you with every step. It starts with just a phone call. Jeanette says usually once someone becomes unable to work, due to a mental or physical impairment, they apply for their social security disability benefits. “People will apply for benefits and get turned down, get discouraged and don’t appeal, not understanding that only about 1 in 3 are approved at the initial level now. As the system has tightened up, people that should be approved at the initial level are being denied.” Jeanette says this occurs for a number of reasons, but it’s no reason to just give up. “If they apply and are denied, that’s probably the time they want to start looking around and talk to somebody.”
That’s when Maddox & Laffoon steps in. When a client first calls, information is gathered and an appointment is set. To qualify for social security disability, one must have an injury or impairment that has lasted or will last twelve months and prohibits employment. Examples can include injuries from a car accident, chronic illness, orthopedic impairments, heart conditions, cancer, fibromyalgia, mental illness, COPD, diabetes, or any other medical condition that interferes with the ability to work fulltime.
If you are unable to work in your field of employment due to your impairment, but are able work in another job, you will not be found disabled … unless you are over 50. In some cases, it may not be feasible to start a whole new career Jeanette says, “and social security recognizes that the older you get the harder it is to retrain.”
How does a social security disability claim work?
The most important thing you can do is seek professional help early on in the process so your lawyer can help prove your disability. You don’t want to let things go so far that nothing can be done to help. “It’s really hard because once you have your hearing your record is closed. Once you have the hearing that’s the last point to submit that evidence so it’s really hard to represent somebody that hasn’t been properly represented before the hearing,” says Jeanette.
The system doesn’t move quickly so you have plenty of time to seek legal counsel. From the time you first apply for benefits, it will take roughly six months for an initial decision. Then, a request for reconsideration will take about another three months and Jeanette says most often results in a second denial. At this point, you can request a hearing, but it will be close to twelve months before you actually go before a judge. With fewer than 700 Administrative Law judges who deal with social security disability in this country and an estimated million cases in the backlog, it’s no wonder it doesn’t happen overnight. There are special circumstances, called compassionate allowances that speed the process along for people with specific severe illnesses. Also, veterans receive special consideration, and their claims are expedited.
But the good news is, once the waiting game is over and your disability is proven, you will receive the money you are owed. “For all those months that you’ve been waiting, you get that in a lump sum,” Jeanette explains. “That’s your back award. It’s basically the benefits that you’re entitled to for the time that you’ve been waiting for them to make a decision.” Any dependent minor children will also receive a back award. That’s also when Maddox & Laffoon gets paid.
How is Maddox and Laffoon paid?
Maddox & Laffoon takes no up-front payments from clients. Instead, the law office gets paid 25% of your back award, up to $6,000, once your case is won. “This is kind of a unique area of law. Social security wants to protect claimants and so they have a way of charging a contingent fee that they would like us to use,” Jeanette adds.
Let’s face it, you aren’t going to get rich on social security disability, but it will definitely help. Jeanette tells me the maximum benefit amount is somewhere near $2,500 per month, and is dependent upon how much you’ve paid into the tax system over the years. And if you have dependent minor children, just like the back award, they too are eligible for monthly disability benefits. Their amount will usually be about half of yours and divided among however many minor children you have.
What if you can go back to work?
Social security disability simply asks you to be honest. Jeanette says if you make anything over $700 in one month you need to take that first paycheck in and tell them about it. And she suggests doing it in writing with a date stamp, just in case it’s ever disputed.
You can get nine trial work months to determine if you really are able to work. “It’s wonderful because it allows you to be able to try something that otherwise you would be afraid to try,” says Jeanette. During these trial months you can make any amount of money and still receive your benefits. On the tenth month, if you are still able to work, you will receive two more months of disability, and then the benefits will end. Following this, you still have an extended period of eligibility of three more years, during which it is fairly simple to get your benefits back should you become unable to work again.
As one can see, there are many complexities of the social security disability process. This is your money, you’ve earned it, and you want to be sure your case is in good hands, like those at Maddox & Laffoon.
“I think it’s really important and I really like the work,” says Jeanette in summary. “I like my clients a lot. It feels really good to help people that otherwise would be lost in this big system.”
To learn more about how Maddox & Laffoon can help you win your social security disability case, call 360-786-8276 or swing by their downtown Olympia law office at 410-A Capitol Way South (behind Hot Toddy, the front door faces the US Bank parking lot).