A common question I get asked by my clients is how alcohol or drug addiction can impact their application for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits. Alcohol or drug dependence is a major issue facing millions of Americans. For some, alcohol or drug addiction, itself, can be debilitating to the point of creating a disability. For others, alcohol or drugs can lead to other medical problems (such as liver disease) which, in turn, can cause disability. For still others, alcohol or drug dependence can be a part of a disabling mental illness such as depression or anxiety. In this post I will review how the Social Security Administration (SSA) approaches drug addiction when evaluating claims for SSD benefits. I will do this by separately addressing three different scenarios in which alcohol or drug addiction may play a role in creating a disability.
Can you receive Social Security Disability benefits solely based on your addiction to drugs and/or alcohol?
No. While, alcohol or drug addiction, itself, can certainly disable people to the point of preventing normal functioning and the ability to work, the SSA will not grant SSD benefits solely based on an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. This policy is due to the Right To Work Act. Through this law, enacted in 1996, Congress eliminated alcoholism (and drug addiction) as a basis for obtaining Social Security Disability benefits. So does that mean that drug or alcohol addiction will prevent you from getting SSDI benefits? This is where things get a little more complicated.
If you are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, can you still receive Social Security Disability benefits?
The answer to this question is that it depends. While the Right to Work Act prevents the SSA from granting SSDI benefits specifically for alcohol or drug dependence, it does not necessarily disqualify people with other disabilities from receiving SSD benefits just because they are also addicted to drugs or alcohol. In other words, the SSA is not supposed to penalize you for being addicted to drugs or alcohol.
If the Social Security Administration determines that you are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, they must determine whether the drug addiction or alcoholism significantly contributes to your disability. To determine this, SSA will first consider whether all of your other medical conditions qualify you as disabled per their guidelines. If SSA determines that you are, indeed, disabled based on your medical condition(s), the next step is to determine whether you would still be disabled if you stopped using drugs and/or alcohol. If SSA determines that you would not be disabled once you stopped using drugs or alcohol, then SSA will determine that you are not disabled and not eligible for SSD benefits. If SSA determines that you would still be disabled even if you stopped using drugs and/or alcohol, then they will award you Social Security Disability benefits. For example, lets suppose that you suffer from both depression and alcohol addiction. If you can demonstrate that you would be disabled from depression even if you overcame your alcohol dependence, the SSA would grant you SSDI benefits.
My use of alcohol and/or drugs caused a disabling medical condition. Can I receive Social Security Disability benefits for this condition?
If your disability was caused by alcohol and/or drugs, the SSA will first determine whether you are disabled per Social Security’s regulations using the same method as discussed above. That means if you would still be disabled if you stopped using drugs and/or alcohol then you will be considered disabled and would be awarded SSD benefits. For example, lets suppose that you developed alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver from an alcohol addiction and this condition has disabled you. When you apply for SSD benefits, SSA will first determine whether the cirrhosis is severe enough to classify you as disabled. If you are deemed disabled, SSA will then determine if the disability caused by the cirrhosis would persist if you were to stop drinking. If they determine that your cirrhosis is advanced to the point that the disability it causes cannot be reversed even if you stop drinking, you will be granted SSD benefits.
Take Home Message
While alcohol and drug dependence, in and of itself, does not qualify you for SSD benefits, it also does not preclude you from these benefits. To be eligible for SSDI benefits, you must demonstrate that your medical condition disables you independent of any concurrent drug or alcohol dependence. It is also important to note that while this is the process for determining whether a claimant is eligible for SSD benefits if he/she is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, in reality many judges do not like to see that a claimant is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol in the time period they are applying for SSD benefits. If you do have medical records which state that you are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, you should consult with an attorney experienced in Social Security Disability regarding your particular claim.