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MS Disability Benefits: How To Apply and More

Updated on March 17, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Amit M. Shelat, D.O.
Article written by
Annie Keller

  • There are different types of disability benefits for people with multiple sclerosis who qualify.
  • Eligibility for disability benefits depends on your inability to work.
  • You may appeal the decision if you are denied disability benefits.

Even the best accommodations at work sometimes aren’t enough to help you keep your job when you have multiple sclerosis (MS). Symptoms such as visual impairments, difficulty walking, and fatigue can make work impossible.

When people in the U.S. living with MS can no longer work, many seek Social Security disability benefits. Disability benefits help replace lost income when people with MS leave their jobs.

Applying for disability benefits can be emotionally difficult. “Starting the Social Security process ... Ugh! Sounds daunting!” wrote one MyMSTeam member.

The process of applying for a disability claim can feel intimidating, but understanding the process ahead of time can make applying easier.

Disability Benefit Programs in the U.S.

There are two different federal disability programs in the United States, Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). To qualify for either program, you must have a disability that interferes with your ability to work.

Social Security Disability Income provides benefits to those who have previously had full-time work. SSDI benefits are funded through payroll taxes. If you are approved, you can receive benefits six months after you become disabled. If you have been disabled for at least a year, you may be able to get back payments of disability benefits for one year. You are eligible for Medicare 24 months after you start receiving SSDI.

Supplemental Security Income provides benefits to those who have not worked the required time period and have a low income. If you are approved, you can receive benefits in the next month. You may also be eligible for back payments of SSI if you became disabled before your SSI approval.

In most states, SSI eligibility qualifies you for Medicaid. In Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and the Northern Mariana Islands, you have to apply for Medicaid separately from SSI, but the criteria for both are the same. Eligibility criteria for SSI recipients varies across states.

Almost every state provides an SSI supplement. Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota, and West Virginia do not. The eligibility rules for supplements vary by state.

There is an asset cap for receiving Supplemental Security Income. If an individual has more than $2,000 of assets (or a couple has more than $3,000 of assets), they lose eligibility. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a list of which assets are counted toward the maximum.

It’s possible to get both SSDI and SSI if you have very limited funds and have a work history.

Definition of Disability

To determine whether someone is disabled enough to be eligible for benefits, the Social Security Administration will evaluate several factors. The following criteria will be examined when you apply for Social Security disability benefits:

  • You must be unable to engage in “substantial gainful activity.” You are considered capable of substantial gainful activity if you earn over a certain amount, usually $1,260 or more a month — although if you do earn more, you may be eligible for reduced benefits.
  • You must be incapable of performing basic tasks required for most jobs, including standing for extended periods, walking, lifting, sitting, and remembering. You must not have been able to perform these tasks for at least 12 months.
  • You must have a recognized disability. The Social Security Administration provides a Listing of Impairments, including MS, listed under Neurological Disorders.
  • You must be unable to do any work you did previously. If you’re applying for SSI benefits, it’s not necessary to have a work history.
  • You must be unable to do any other form of sustainable work. The Social Security Administration will consider your diagnosis, age, medical history, education, and work experience, as well as any other skills you have that might be applied to work.
Driving with MS: When does it become a disability? Read article.

Application Process for SSDI and SSI

Applying for disability benefits for MS requires a lot of paperwork. The Social Security Administration offers a checklist of necessary application information. Below is a summary of what you’ll need to provide.

Personal and Family Member Information

  • Your full legal name, date of birth, and Social Security number
  • Full names and dates of birth of your current or previous spouses, and dates of marriage, divorce, or death
  • Full names and dates of birth of your children
  • Bank account information

Medical Evidence About Your MS

Medical evidence is typically the most important component of a disability application. Make sure your MS treatment team is aware that you are applying for disability so they can document your condition accordingly. Documentation is especially important if you are required to have a disability evaluation. You may need the following documentation for your application:

  • The name and contact information of your neurologist and other medical providers who can discuss your condition
  • A complete list of medications, both past and present, that you have taken and any medical tests that have been done, such as an MRI of the spinal cord
  • A description of how MS symptoms — such as muscle weakness, diminished visual acuity, and problems with motor function — affect your ability to do daily activities like shopping, cooking, and cleaning

Total Employment History

  • Earnings from the past year
  • Any current employers or those you have worked for in the past two years
  • A complete work history from the last 15 years, including any jobs from before you became disabled
  • Whether you are getting or intend to receive workers’ compensation
  • Military service

Documents

  • Birth certificate
  • Social Security card
  • Proof of citizenship
  • W-2 or other tax forms from the previous year
  • Any medical records about your condition
  • Proof of any workers’ compensation you have received

You can apply for SSDI online if you aren’t currently receiving benefits and if you haven’t been denied in the past 60 days. You can apply for SSI online if you have never been married, if you were born in the United States, and if you are between 18 and 65. If you don’t meet any of those criteria, you can still apply at a local Social Security office or over the phone.

Appealing a Disability Application Rejection

It takes an average of three to five months to process an initial application for disability benefits. Some MyMSTeam members got approved sooner. “I got disability within a couple of months,” wrote one member.

For others, the process can take years. “It took me two years with secondary progressive [MS]. I was denied the first time and got approved on appeal with a lawyer,” another member shared.

Only 21 percent of those who applied for disability benefits between 2009 and 2018 were approved on their first attempt. You can appeal the decision if your application is denied. The first step is reconsideration, when your case will be evaluated by someone who did not take part in the first evaluation. About 2 percent of applications that weren’t approved the first time were approved during reconsideration from 2009 through 2018.

Reconsideration can take time. One MyMSTeam member was still waiting on this process months after an initial rejection. “My claim was denied. Now I’m waiting on the appeal process. I’m trying not to get discouraged,” they shared.

If necessary, you have the option to file a second appeal. The second appeal includes a hearing by an administrative law judge. These are judges trained in disability laws, who will hear all the evidence in your disability case. You may have a disability attorney represent you at this hearing. “My case worker referred me to an attorney that specializes in SS claims,” one MyMSTeam member shared.

Another member credited their private disability lawyer with their successful appeal: “It took me three years with the lawyer. But it was worry-free and easy not to have to do all of the appeals myself. So I recommend a lawyer.”

If you are denied at this level, you can ask the Appeals Council to review your case and make a decision on it. About 8 percent of SSDI claims between 2009 and 2018 were approved during a hearing with an administrative law judge or the Appeals Council. If you are denied at this level, your last remaining option is a federal court hearing.

Filing for disability benefits can be stressful. MyMSTeam members shared a variety of ways to help deal with the process.

  • “Fill out the application completely, [and] make sure your neuro is aware that you're applying. You cannot work.”
  • “Request a copy of your medical records, and you’ll have the answers in writing.”
  • “Getting denied once or twice is not unusual. But having MS is indeed considered a true disability.”
  • “Find a support group to physically go to. Get a lawyer so it will go much faster.”
  • “Mention every condition you have been diagnosed with. Mention every medication you are taking. Mention any therapy taken. List any and all limitations experienced.”
  • “Don’t give up, go on appealing. Keep your application, file again, and see as many doctors and get your records if you can. It helps.”
  • “You must have medical reports and MRIs to back up your claim.”
  • “You have paid into the Social Security system, so you are able to get it. It just takes time and being persistent.”

Consider These International Resources

If you’d like to research more about disability benefits in countries outside of the United States, check out these resources, listed by country:

You Are Not Alone With Multiple Sclerosis

By joining MyMSTeam, the social network and online community for those living with multiple sclerosis, you gain a support group of more than 187,000 people who understand life with MS.

Have you applied for Social Security disability benefits for MS? Do you have any advice about the process? Comment below or start a conversation on MyMSTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Amit M. Shelat, D.O. is a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Physicians. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Annie Keller specializes in writing about medicine, medical devices, and biotech. Learn more about her here.

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