Social Security Disability: Alcohol and Drugs

The author discusses the effect alcohol or drug use can have a claim.

We recently had a client who was clearly disabled because she suffered from bad seizures. When we went to the hearing the Social Security Judge would only focus on the fact that the client was an alcoholic and not her physical disabilities. The Client was disabled enough to win her case, but lost the case because she continued to drink in excessive amounts. The Judge felt that if she was so disabled she should not be drinking so much.
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Many claimants are surprised to discover how deeply a disability examiner investigates into their lives. Examiners will often look into a claimant's daily activities, talk to family and friends, and scrutinize personal records. As one might suspect, alcohol and/or drug abuse is one finding that can significantly change the dynamic of your case.

Substance abuse does not necessarily preclude applicants from receiving benefits, but it can certainly hamper a claimant's case. Since drug and alcohol abuse are not listed on the Social Security Administration's (SSA) List of Impairments, sufferers must have a disability apart from their substance abuse. The key factor when considering drug/alcohol abuse in a disability case is whether the abuse is material to the case. When abuse is material to a disability case, the case can easily be denied. If it is immaterial, that means that the substance abuse is not a major factor in the claimant's disability and thus, their claim is more likely to be approved.

Substance abuse may be material to the case when:

The claimant's disability was sparked by substance abuse
Any disability would clear up without substance abuse
Abuse of alcohol or drugs is constant, with no periods of sobriety

Substance abuse may be considered immaterial when:

Claimant would be disabled even without the substance abuse
During periods of sobriety the claimant is still disabled
Substance abuse is secondary to a completely separate disabling condition

For example, if you were to apply for Social Security Disability benefits based on liver dysfunction, but you also have a history of alcohol abuse, some of it recent. If your liver damage is so pronounced that ceasing alcohol use completely would make no difference to your medical condition, then your alcohol abuse would be immaterial to your condition and you would probably win your case for Social Security Disability benefits. Conversely, if ceasing alcohol use would result in medical improvement, then it is material to your disability and your claim for Social Security Disability would likely be denied.

Drug and alcohol abuse can be discovered in a variety of ways, including notes (recent or not) from the claimant's medical files. If your physician made a note on one of your charts about admitted or suspected substance abuse, this note can easily come to light during your case. Have your disability attorney review your medical files alongside you to avoid any unwelcome bombshells.

An applicant has a better chance of obtaining Social Security Disability benefits if they are sober and drug free and remain sober and drug free.

Michigan attorney Joshua Ben is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Copyright Allan W. Ben, PC
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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