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Filing for Social Security disability? Read this first

It's a little bit intimidating to start the disability process with Social Security -- there are a lot of rumors that you hear and it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

Here's a handy list of facts that you can use to make the process as painless as possible and easier to understand:

1. You do not need an attorney to file your initial claim. In fact, most attorneys who handle Social Security disability claims won't accept your case until you've been denied at least once. That's because attorneys can only take their fees from past-due benefits once you're approved. If you're approved on your first try, there's little for an attorney to do and really nothing to collect.

2. You don't need your doctor's permission to file. While it's certainly helpful if your doctor is on board with your decision to file for benefits, the decision to approve or deny your claim is going to be based on what's already in your medical records and several other factors.

3. In fact, Social Security has an extremely strict definition of disability. To qualify for benefits, you have to have a condition that prevents you from performing any sort of substantial gainful work activity. Your condition must have already lasted, or be expected to last, for at least 12 months. That means, for example, a woman on total bed rest due to pregnancy complications won't qualify for benefits -- despite her obvious disability -- because her condition will likely resolve once she gives birth.

4. In most cases, it takes 3-5 months to get a disability decision from Social Security. However, there are some cases that qualify for almost immediate approval due to their severe nature. There are also some cases that may take considerably longer to get a decision -- particularly if Social Security has a hard time getting your medical records from your physicians. You can often speed up the process by providing copies of your medical records when you file.

If your first attempt to get benefits isn't successful, don't despair -- you have the right to file an appeal. At that point, it is wise to seek assistance from an attorney who handles Social Security claims -- he or she can help you determine the reason for the denial and the best strategy to overcome the issue on appeal.

Source: Social Security Administration, "What You Should Know Before You Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits," accessed July 28, 2017

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