How Does Alcohol Use Affect My Social Security Disability Claim?

Did you know that alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States? Approximately 17 million people, or one in every twelve adults, suffer from alcohol abuse[1]. If you are one of the 17 million Americans who abuse alcohol and you are thinking about applying for social security disability benefits, you may be wondering how your alcohol use will affect your claim. In short, your consumption may have a negative effect on your claim. When the Social Security Administration (SSA) performs the medical evaluation on your case they will consider whether your alcohol use worsens your medical conditions. SSA will also consider if your alcohol use affects your credibility.

The Social Security Act provides that an individual “shall not be considered disabled if alcoholism or drug addiction would be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner’s determination that the individual is disabled.” (See Sections 223(d)(2)(C) and 1614(a)(3)(J)). The Commissioner of Social Security has submitted a policy statement interpreting this regulation from the Social Security Act (See: SSR 13-2p). SSR 13-2p describes how drug addiction and/or alcoholism is to be evaluated when determining eligibility for social security disability benefits. SSA must consider whether the individual’s alcohol use is material to a finding of disability. To determine materiality, SSA considers whether the individual’s alcoholism is a contributing factor to disability.  Meaning, if the individual stopped drinking alcohol, would the conditions continue to be just as severe.

SSA will not consider your alcohol use if it is not relevant to the time period under consideration. Typically, the time frame SSA is looking at is from your disability date through the present, or up until your date last insured. Your disability date is the date your physical or psychological limitations became so restrictive that you are unable to work. Usually, this date is the date you last worked. Or, if your disability resulted from an accident, you disability date would be the date of the accident. Your date last insured is how long you have disability insurance coverage. Your disability insurance will cover you for 5 years after you stop paying taxes (or premiums if you think of the program as private insurance coverage). What this all means is that if your disability date is January 1, 2015 and you were an alcoholic your whole life with several DWI’s, but stopped drinking altogether on June 4, 2014, then SSA would not be able to consider your past alcohol use when making a disability determination.

Is Your Alcohol Use Causing The Disability?

Past alcohol use during your disability time frame is not necessarily a case killer. But it certainly needs to be explained that your use is not causing you to be disabled. If you do have alcohol use during the relevant time frame for considering disability, then SSA will consider whether your use is material or not to your disability. In this case, you would need to show a period of abstinence of sobriety to prove used is non-material. Using the previous example, if your disability date is January 1, 2015, and you drank heavily from January through June 2015, stopped for two months, then resumed drinking again, we would need to consider your conditions during your period of sobriety, that being 2 months. In the two months when you were sober, SSA will look at your medical records to see if your conditions have improved or worsened with your alcohol abstinence. If your conditions have improved, SSA will likely find that your alcohol use is a contributing factor to your disability. Meaning, if you stopped drinking you would not be disabled. At which point you will most likely receive a denial for your claim.

The next situation which you may find yourself in is where you do not have a period of sobriety. You have been consuming alcohol consistently throughout the relevant disability time frame. Not having a period of sobriety makes a materiality determination difficult. Ultimately, the materiality determination will come down to whether alcohol use would logically impact your conditions. If psychological, alcohol consumption will almost always be found material to your condition. One reason is that your consumption of alcohol will have a negative impact on any psychiatric medications you are consuming. So if you are alleging disability due to, for instance, bipolar disorder and you are an everyday drinker, I recommend you talk to your physician about staying away from alcohol so that you may have a period of sobriety to show your alcohol consumption is not any way connected to your bipolar disorder. Now if your disability is mainly physical, it is harder for SSA to say your alcohol use is material to your disability. Your alcohol use didn’t cause a bulging disc in your lumbar spine or your need for a total hip replacement. Even though your alcohol use may logically not be material to your disability, it may still have a negative impact on your claim.

Alcohol Use Hurts Your Credibility

The second way alcohol consumption is considered in your disability claim goes towards your credibility. When applying for disability, you describe your symptoms and limitations resulting from diagnosed conditions. Your symptoms are very specific to you. Whether or not SSA will give credit to your alleged symptoms will come down to whether those symptoms would be typically found from your diagnosed conditions, and whether SSA finds you to be a truthful individual. While alcohol use has nothing to do with your truthfulness as a person, it is certainly a factor that causes some bias.

If you have found yourself in a situation where you need to apply for disability benefits, but are concerned about your alcohol consumption I first recommend abstaining from any alcohol use. Alcohol use does not mean you will not win your disability claim. But it certainly will make things more difficult. If you continue to consume alcohol you should 100% contact an attorney to represent you in your claim. Legal arguments will need to be made to SSA so as to explain the use and how it is not material to your conditions. Feel free to call or email me at the LaBovick Law Group for a free consultation. We will quickly identify your issue and advise as to how to proceed.

[1] Take this free test offered by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: Am I an Alcoholic Self Test.

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