Readers share advice on applying for long-term disability benefits


We invited readers who have faced a long-term illness or disability at work to advise a reader who was concerned about claiming disability benefits. Some of the best answers are below.

“I would be afraid that if I stayed at work, I would be the target of a layoff or [reduction in force] if I wasn’t able to put in a full work week and wasn’t able to perform at the level I needed when I was on the job,” Charles McComas of Durham, North Carolina, said in an email. McComas retired early due to disability with a neurological condition.

Firing someone with a disability is illegal under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but it’s hard to prove if the employer can say they based their decision on performance issues and didn’t was unaware of your condition.

Ellen Bresnahan manages the disability appeals department for Fairfax, Va., law firm BenGlassLaw. Bresnahan explained via email that his practice advises anyone with a disability to first make sure they have the support of their doctor or medical team. Ideally, the physician should be willing to complete disability documentation with clear details of diagnosis, corresponding limitations and restrictions, treatment plan, prognosis, and evidence based on test and examination results.

And once you have your doctor or medical team, be sure to cooperate with recommended treatments and follow-up appointments – not only for your well-being, but also to document your condition and progress.

Find a lawyer as soon as possible

“Anyone contemplating the possibility of long-term disability should consult with an attorney. When you realize you really need it, you’re way too pressed for time,” said Michael O’Donnell of Colorado Springs.

This does not necessarily mean high hourly legal fees. Bresnahan says his firm offers flat-rate consultations to review claims before they are submitted to the insurance company. His firm also reviews claim denial letters for free to help people understand why their claims were denied and how to approach the appeal process.

You can start your search for an attorney at,, or your state bar association’s website.

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Although the basic path from short-term long-term disability to federal disability seems simple, “the reality is that there are obstacles at every step of the way that create more stress and challenges. for people trying to use their benefits, and many just end up giving up,” Sue Popkins said in an email. Popkins is a chronically ill Northern Virginia resident.

Disability insurers may deny claims initially — or they may later suspend or cancel benefits unexpectedly.

… But carry on anyway

O’Donnell said her insurer canceled her disability benefits even though there were no changes in her health or medical information. Fortunately, he had already hired a lawyer who immediately began the weeks-long process of preparing an appeal.

O’Donnell had to wait six months for the insurer to answer the call; after that time, his benefits were re-approved and he received back pay. O’Donnell does not recall being given an explanation as to why the benefits were canceled or reinstated, but he said he was “99% confident that the lawyer’s presence and our apparent willingness to ‘going to court if necessary determined the outcome’.

And even if you manage to get disability benefits, you could lose other benefits that you thought were safe.

Retired human resources professional Ronald Weissmann of Elk Grove, Calif., said he was shocked when a life insurance provider tried in 2012 to avoid paying survivor benefits to a employed on disability due to cancer because she was not considered an “active employee” when she died. Many life insurers will suspend premiums and consider disabled employees as active so their survivors will receive benefits, but it’s best to check your plan’s certificate of coverage to be sure.

“I have read and re-read my companies leave policy and the companies disability plan,” McComas said. “Checked to see what my expected payment from SSDI would be and looked up my illness in the Social Security Administration’s ‘Blue Book’ to make sure I had symptoms that qualified me for SSDI [federal disability benefits]. … I got the hell out of my wife, HR and my financial planner with stupid questions. I kept asking my wife, ‘Read this, does this say what I think?’ ”

The online commentator “Be Wise and Kind” recommended creating a one-page summary of your condition and how it affects you:

“Be honest with yourself here – for me it was really an eye opener to really have to write it all down and see how different I was from the person I had been, but it ended up helped to be more realistic and make better choices. ”

About Antoine L. Cassell

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