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At each stage of your life, my Social Security is for you. Your personal online my Social Security account is a valuable source of information beginning in your working years and continuing throughout the time you receive Social Security benefits.

Use a my Social Security online account to:

If you Do not Receive Benefits, you can:

Use a my Social Security online account to get your Social Security Statement, to review:

  • Estimates of your retirement, disability, and survivors benefits;
  • Your earnings record; and
  • The estimated Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid.

 

 

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Social Security Disability and the facts behind it

A recent series that aired on National Public Radio (NPR) stations across the U.S. on Planet Money, This American Life, and All Things Considered (“Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America” and “Trends With Benefits”) paints a misleading and often inaccurate picture of the Social Security programs that serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with severe disabilities.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), which I had the honor of chairing for the past 3 years, has released a statement responding to the series, signed by over 120 organizations, and joined by other major national coalitions, including the Coalition on Human Needs, the Children’s Leadership Council, and the SSI Coalition for Children and Families.

As series reporter Chana Joffe-Walt noted in the final segment, “there is no question these programs play a really important role in the lives of lots of people,” going on to say, “the fact that these programs do support so many Americans and growing numbers of Americans makes it all the more important to actually look at them and say, what are they doing, how are they designed, are they functioning well, what role are they playing?” I could not agree more. However, taken as a whole, the series may have left many listeners with an incomplete and misinformed impression of the Social Security programs and the vital role they play in the lives of people with disabilities.

Before leaping to conclusions, let’s consider the facts.

Who receives Social Security disability benefits?

According to the U.S. Census about 57 million, or 1 in 5 Americans, live with disabilities, and about 38 million or 1 in 10 has a severe disability. The Social Security disability programs provide vital support only to those with the most significant disabilities — about 14 million children and working-age adults.

Like the rest of our nation’s Social Security system, Disability Insurance, or SSDI, is funded through payroll contributions by workers and employers. SSDI provides benefits to workers who have contributed enough via payroll taxes to be “covered” and who become significantly disabled before reaching full retirement age. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, provides support to low-income children and adults with severe disabilities, as well as low-income seniors.

About 40 percent of applicants are awarded benefits under the law’s strict disability standard. Beneficiaries have severe impairments and health conditions. Many are terminally ill. Despite their impairments, many report eagerness to do some work, and some do work part-time. But research indicates that the average earning potential of beneficiaries with “work capacity” is a few thousand dollars per year–hardly enough to support oneself.

As with adults, most child applicants are denied SSI, and only those with medically documented impairment that results in “marked and severe functional limitations” qualify for benefits. Just 1.7 percent of U.S. children receive SSI–fewer than 1 in 4 U.S. children with disabilities. Contrary to misconceptions, doing poorly in school is not a basis for SSI eligibility. Poor performance in school may be an indicator of a learning disorder or other mental impairment, but on its own is not sufficient to qualify a child for SSI. Likewise, doing well in school doesn’t mean a child will lose benefits. Academic performance is just one evidentiary factor among many considered in evaluating a child’s eligibility for SSI.

How do benefits help people with disabilities?

Benefits are extremely modest – averaging just over $1,100 per month for SSDI and just over $520 per month for SSI – but keep millions of people with disabilities from deep poverty and homelessness. As noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), for most adult disability beneficiaries SSI and SSDI make up all or most of their income. On an extremely limited budget, most benefits go to basics like food, clothing, medical care, and housing.

The SSI childhood disability program – one focus of “Unfit to Work” – plays an essential role in helping families address the often crushing expense of caring for a child with a severe disability, and the reality that some parents are unable to work full-time due to overwhelming caregiving responsibilities. Together with Medicaid, SSI makes it possible for many children to remain at home with their families instead of needing to be in an institution to receive their care.

What about “invisible” disabilities?

According to the World Health Organization, in rich nations like the U.S. many people are living longer–but with more disability. Today the leading causes of disability both in the U.S. and abroad are largely invisible: mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders. Yet denial of such “invisible” disabilities remains sadly common. “Unfit to Work” epitomizes this denial, questioning whether individuals who “look healthy” ought to be receiving disability benefits, and declaring that disabilities visible to the naked eye (e.g., injuries suffered in a car crash) are “unambiguous,” whereas impairments less readily observable to an onlooker are somehow “squishy.” Is someone with cancer or a veteran with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) less deserving of disability benefits than someone with a visible disability? This logic also dismisses the millions of Americans with mental impairments ranging from intellectual disability to Autism to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to schizophrenia (among many others), just because their impairments exist beneath the skin.

What explains the growth in the disability programs?

As noted by Kathy Ruffing at CBPP, Social Security’s Chief Actuary Steven Goss, and Brad Plumer at The Washington Post, the recent growth in SSDI is largely due to demographics. Two factors have played the largest role: baby boomers entering their high-disability years and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now “insured” for SSDI based on their own prior contributions.

The increase in the number of children receiving SSI benefits in the past decade is similarly explained by the increase child poverty. From 2000 to 2011, the number of poor children skyrocketed from about 11 million to over 16 million, and more than 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty today. Since SSI is a means-tested program, more poor and low-income children mean more children with severe disabilities are financially eligible for benefits. Importantly, the share of low-income children who receive SSI benefits has remained constant at about 3 to 4 percent.

Additionally, as highlighted by Elizabeth Lower-Basch at the Center on Law and Social Policy (CLASP), there is no evidence of a large-scale shift from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to SSI. In fact, the decline in TANF enrollment from 1996 to 2011 is more than 20 times the magnitude of the increase in SSI child enrollment during that period. Evidence for a shift from TANF to SSDI is also lacking. The share of SSDI disabled worker beneficiaries with dependent children has actually fallen since 1996 (when TANF became law), from nearly one-third to about 20% in 2011. While loss of TANF might lead a person to apply for SSI or SSDI, being poor is not enough to qualify for disability benefits–an applicant must also meet the strict disability standard.

What will the future bring for the Social Security disability programs?

As the baby boomers age into retirement, the number of new SSDI beneficiaries awarded benefits has already begun to level off and is projected to decline further in the coming years. The number of children receiving SSI has also decreased from 2011-2013 and is projected to decline further over the coming decade.

Media accounts frequently sensationalize the DI trust fund’s projected shortfall. History tells a less dramatic story. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has “reallocated” payroll tax revenues across the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and DI trust funds – about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target. Experts at CBPP and SSA’s Chief Actuary have urged Congress to take action to ensure long-term solvency, as it has on several prior occasions.

Over the years, CCD and others have put forward many recommendations for how the Social Security disability programs can more effectively serve their missions: increasing economic security for people with severe disabilities, and enabling them to live independently and with dignity. It’s saddening to see reporting that risks scapegoating the very system that is a lifeline for millions of Americans with severe disabilities. Instead let’s focus on strengthening these vital programs.

Article: Click here.

For legal advice, contact Bunch & James.

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What to expect for the Social Security Administration Part 2

Length of Process: It usually takes 90-120 days to get a decision at the initial and reconsideration stages. However, it can take up to six months or longer. We have no control over long it takes. We can only make sure all of your relevant medical records have been submitted and that the legal basis for disability has been presented. In the past, when we have contacted the Office of Disability Determinations to request that they expedite cases of urgent medical and financial circumstances, it has been unsuccessful. The Office of Disability Determinations operates on the own time schedule and does not seem to be moved by our urging, nagging, pleading, etc. This not only goes for our firm, but for all representatives, claimant and even congressman.

It is now taking 12 months or longer from the date a hearing is requested until a hearing is scheduled. Then Office of Disability Adjudication and Review does not expedite cases unless the claimant is about to become homeless and has an eviction notice in hand. Please do not ask us to have your case expedited.

 

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What to expect for the Social Security Administration

1. Levels of Appeal

The first step in obtaining Social Security benefits is to file an application. When you file the application, you will be given a disability report to complete. Please fill this out to the best of your ability and keep a copy before submitting it to the Social Security Administration to get all necessary medical records. Our staff at Bunch and James will be happy to help you with any questions you have regarding this report.

About thirty days after your appointment, your file will be sent to the state office of Disability Determinations and assigned to a medical adjudicator. This medical adjudicator will then gather all medical records relevant to your condition. He or she may send you a questionnaire or request that you attend an examination with a consultative doctor. After the medical adjudicator believes all of the relevant information is in your file, a decision will be made and a copy sent to you. Due to time limitations in filing an appeal, if you receive any correspondence from the Social Security Administration, please do what is requested.

If you are turned down initially, don’t ever give up. If you are denied at the initial stage, you should request a hearing if appropriate. Although the length of time it takes to receive a hearing varies, it may take up to 12 months or longer from the date a hearing is requested before a hearing is scheduled. After your hearing, you will receive a written decision from the  Administrative Law Judge usually within 60 days. In some states, you must file a request for Reconsideration before you are entitled to a Request for Hearing. Read the notices from the Social Security carefully to determine which appeal is appropriate.

The reconsideration process is similar to the initial claim as far as the procedures and the time it takes to receive a decision.

Most cases are won at the hearing stage. However, if you do not prevail at this level, an appeal can be made to the appeals council. We appeal some denials at the hearing stage to the appeals council. This appeal does not involve in-person hearing.

If we are successful at the appeals council stage, we can appeal to the U.S. District Court. We do not appeal every case to the court, only the ones in which we feel the administrative law judge erred as a matter of law. This is because the U.S.District Court cannot “second guess” the Administrative Law Judge’s decision, but must determine whether the Judge abused his discretion or erred as a matter of law.

2. Copies of Files

Generally, at the beginning or our representation, we will send you a copy of the appointment of representative form and Fee agreement. After that, we usually do not send copies of records or correspondence with Social Security to you. If you wish to review or obtain your records from your file, you may schedule an appointment to see your file and request copies of specific records that you need. By law, certain files may not be released, even to the client.

3. Appointments

If you wish to speak with your attorney, please call the office and schedule an appointment. If you call and leave a message, the attorney may try to reach you and many not be able to.Scheduling appointments ensures the attorney is prepared to answer your questions in a timely manner.

4. New or updated Information

If you want to advise us of new doctors, medications, or a change of address, please speak to the attorney’s social security staff.

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What Happens to Unused Social Security Earnings When Someone Dies?

This interesting article answers some confusing questions about what happens to benefits before the full retirement age.

For full article, click here.

 

 

Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version.

Carol — Albuquerque, N.M.: Just curious. When someone dies, what happens to their unused Social Security earnings if they don’t go to a spouse or kids?

 

Larry Kotlikoff: They vanish into thin air. That’s the nature of an insurance scheme. If your house doesn’t burn down, your premiums have, ex post, been wasted. With longevity insurance, if you die early, you don’t get paid off. On the other hand, you’re in heaven, where God, not cash, is king.

George — Athens, Ga.: I turned 59 four months after my wife turned 62. She is drawing Social Security benefits based on her work record. I have been the higher earning spouse. If I die before I begin drawing benefits and before my full retirement age of 66, and even before she turns 66, will she (if she waits until she is 66 to apply for survivor benefits) receive what I would have received at age 66, based on my work record at the point of my death? Or is it based on what I would have received if I had begun receiving benefits at the age I would have been — i.e., 62 years and eight months — at the point of her application?

Larry Kotlikoff: Yes, to your first question. If you die before full retirement age, having never taken benefits, she will receive what you would have. If you die after full retirement age, having never taken benefits, she’ll give your full retirement benefit augmented by the Delayed Retirement Credit. If you take benefits early, however, she’ll receive your reduced benefit as a survivor benefit and it will be further reduced if she herself takes this survivor benefit early.

I don’t mean to be grisly, but if you know for sure you will die in the near term, I would not take benefits early because it will mean permanently reduced survivor benefits for your wife.

Suzanne Sullivan — Denver: Can someone get the ex-husband pension? Divorced after 22 years of marriage when he died.

Larry Kotlikoff: You can collect survivor benefits based on you divorced husband’s earnings record. You can start collecting them as early as 60. But if you collect your survivor benefits early — before your full retirement age — they will be permanently and significantly reduced.

Linda G. — Troy, Mo.: In 1992, after a brain tumor left me with disabilities (the hidden, but equally devastating kind), I filed for disability insurance that I had purchased through self employment. It paid me a fixed income til this past October when I turned 65. As part of the claim process, I had to file for government Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). I now have no income. A few years ago, a phone call from someone called Social Security advocates (generically) suggested I might be able to apply again and possibly even get money retroactively, though I’m not holding my breath. I have had no time to really get informed about all this until now.

As for health insurance, double digit increases twice a year plus co-pays etc. were too expensive. I can’t afford flu shot, haven’t had an MRI since 2001. Private insurance disability excludes me from Medicare that would have helped had I received SS disability, is that right? Do I have to wait til I apply for retirement before getting Medicare help? Many thanks.

Larry Kotlikoff: You can join Medicare starting at 65 and you may be able to collect Social Security retirement benefits as early as 62 if you worked for more than 40 quarters before becoming incapacitated.

[Paul Solman: So sorry for your trials and tribulations, as is Larry, I'm sure. He answers questions here out of the goodness of his heart. I would only add that when critics deride the "safety net" and the disincentives to work that it supposedly provides, they often forget about life's cruelties and that many Americans, like yourself, literally live on the edge.]

 

 

For legal advice, contact Bunch & James.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter @BunchJamesLaw, “Like” our page on Facebook, and read our other blogs to stay up to date on issues that could affect you.

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Fiscal Cliff: How does this affect Social Security?

WASHINGTON — While the tax package that Congress passed New Year’s Day will protect 99 percent of Americans from an income tax increase, most of them will still end up paying more federal taxes in 2013.

That’s because the legislation did nothing to prevent a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax from expiring. In 2012, that 2-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax was worth about $1,000 to a worker making $50,000 a year.

The Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington research group, estimates that 77 percent of American households will face higher federal taxes in 2013 under the agreement negotiated between President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans. High-income families will feel the biggest tax increases, but many middle- and low-income families will pay higher taxes too.

Households making between $40,000 and $50,000 will face an average tax increase of $579 in 2013, according to the Tax Policy Center’s analysis. Households making between $50,000 and $75,000 will face an average tax increase of $822.

“For most people, it’s just the payroll tax,” said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center.

The tax increases could be a lot higher. A huge package of tax cuts first enacted under President George W. Bush was scheduled to expire Tuesday as part of the “fiscal cliff.” The Bush-era tax cuts lowered taxes for families at every income level, reduced investment taxes and the estate tax, and enhanced a number of tax credits, including a $1,000-per-child credit.

The package passed Tuesday by the Senate and House extends most the Bush-era tax cuts for individuals making less than $400,000 and married couples making less than $450,000.

Obama said the deal “protects 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small business owners from a middle-class tax hike. While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country.”

The income threshold covers more than 99 percent of all households, exceeding Obama’s claim, according to the Tax Policy Center. However, the increase in payroll taxes will hit nearly every wage earner.

Social Security is financed by a 12.4 percent tax on wages up to $113,700, with employers paying half and workers paying the other half. Obama and Congress reduced the share paid by workers from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for 2011 and 2012, saving a typical family about $1,000 a year.

For full article, click here.

For legal advice, contact Bunch & James.

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Solutions for fixing the Social Security problem

The Problem

Over the next 75 years, Social Security will owe an estimated $11.3 trillion more in benefits than it will receive in payroll taxes. It has been running deficits since 2010, according to the Social Security Administration.

To make up the difference, Social Security will need “massive annual injections of funding in addition to what the program receives from payroll taxes,” John writes. Don’t believe the liberal myth that Social Security is on solid financial footing. The numbers don’t lie. It’s very much part of the spending debate facing Washington.

The longer Congress delays action, the harder it will be to solve the problem.

The Solution

There is already bipartisan support for two of the three ideas recommended by John. All three are simple fixes that should be included in any fiscal cliff deal.

1) Fix the annual inflation adjustment. The current index used to determine Social Security’s yearly cost-of-living adjustment does an inferior job of measuring inflation. A better solution is a “chained” index, which more accurately measures inflation. This change would immediately result in savings for Social Security. And it’s easy to do — the new index can be implemented quickly and without complication.

2) Increase the full retirement age. Americans are living longer thanks to advances in medicine. And yet Social Security has not kept pace. The important number here is the how much longer people who have reached age 65 will live. That number is trending upward, by nearly a year, according to recent government data. Congress should gradually increase the full benefits age to 68 and then index it to life expectancy in the future.

3) Focus benefits on those who most need them. It’s time to return Social Security to one of its original purposes: protecting seniors who face economic hardship. In order to make Social Security a true insurance program, upper-income seniors would face reduced benefits or none at all. This would strengthen the program’s finances and prevent future tax hikes on younger workers.

 

For full article, click here.

For legal advice, contact Bunch & James.

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Social Security Announces 1.7 Percent Benefit Increase for 2013

Monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 62 million Americans will increase 1.7 percent in 2013, the Social Security Administration announced today.

The 1.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits that more than 56 million Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2013.  Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 31, 2012.

Some other changes that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages.  Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $113,700 from $110,100.  Of the estimated 163 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2013, nearly 10 million will pay higher taxes as a result of the increase in the taxable maximum.

Information about Medicare changes for 2013, when announced, will be available at www.Medicare.gov.  For some beneficiaries, their Social Security increase may be partially or completely offset by increases in Medicare premiums.

The Social Security Act provides for how the COLA is calculated.  To read more, please visit www.socialsecurity.gov/cola.

 

For legal advice, contact Bunch & James.

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Retirement Planner

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How Social Security Decides if You are Disabled

We use a five-step process to decide if you are disabled.

  1. Are you working?
    If you are working in 2012 and your earnings average more than $1,010 a month, we generally will not consider you disabled. The amount changes each year.

    If you are not working, or your monthly earnings average the current amount or less, the state agency then looks at your medical condition.

  2. Is your medical condition “severe?”
    For the state agency to decide that you are disabled, your medical condition must significantly limit your ability to do basic work activities—such as walking, sitting and remembering—for at least one year. If your medical condition is not that severe, the state agency will not consider you disabled. If your condition is that severe, the state agency goes on to step three.
  3. Is your medical condition on the “Listing Of Impairments?”
    The state agency has a Listing Of Impairments that describes medical conditions that are considered so severe they automatically mean that you are disabled as defined by law. If your condition (or combination of medical conditions) is not on this list, the state agency looks to see if your condition is as severe as a condition that is on the list. If the severity of your medical condition meets or equals that of a listed impairment, the state agency will decide that you are disabled. If it does not, the state agency goes on to step four.
  4. Can you do the work you did before?
    At this step, the state agency decides if your medical condition prevents you from being able to do the work you did before. If it does not, the state agency will decide that you are not disabled. If it does, the state agency goes on to step five.

    Additional information about Step 4.

  5. Can you do any other type of work?
    If you cannot do the work you did in the past, the state agency looks to see if you would be able to do other work. It evaluates your medical condition, your age, education, past work experience and any skills you may have that could be used to do other work. If you cannot do other work, the state agency will decide that you are disabled. If you can do other work, the state agency will decide that you are not disabled.

 

If you or a loved one has had trouble with social security benefits, please contact Bunch & James.

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