Applying for Social Security Disability with a History of Drug or Alcohol Use

This is an interesting piece for the Crossville and Cookeville communities. As top-rated Social Security Disability attorneys, we get asked all the time whether or not a history of drug or alcohol use will affect a client’s social security. And the answer isn’t always so clear. 

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In general, the Social Security Administration (SSA) no longer considers substance abuse as the sole basis for determining disability. This change was brought about by a federal law in 1996, which removed alcoholism and addiction as valid grounds for benefit claims. Therefore, as long as your medical condition meets the criteria for benefits, your SSDI claim cannot be legally denied due to alcohol or drug use.

However, here is the caveat, if the SSA finds that drug or alcohol use is a contributing factor to the physical or functional limitations that prevent you from working for a year or more, they may reject your benefit claim. Only when your medical records show evidence of a substance use disorder will the SSA consider its impact on your condition. This is why we ask for all records during an SSDI claim and go through all these questions in the discovery process. Book a consultation with us to get started. Once you have started a claim, the disability examiners, in collaboration with medical experts, assess whether drug or alcohol dependency is a significant factor in determining your disability status.

Two crucial questions guide this assessment:

  • Are drugs or alcohol worsening your physical or mental disability?
  • Would your condition improve so you could return to work if you stopped using?

If the answer to both questions is no, the SSA considers the substance abuse as “not material.” This means that you would still be sufficiently impaired even without any limitations related to drinking or drugs, and your claim may be approved.

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On the other hand, if the answer to both questions is yes, you will not be deemed disabled, and your claim will be denied.

Now, you may still be eligible for benefits if your disability involves substance abuse, provided that Social Security determines your condition to be irreversible and that abstinence would not affect it. This is why we recommend contacting experts at Burnett Law to guide you through the process.

Substance Abuse and Disability Claims

The SSA distinguishes between substance abuse-related disabilities and disabilities unrelated to substance abuse. To qualify for disability benefits, your condition must meet specific medical criteria outlined in the SSA’s Listing of Impairments, commonly called the “Blue Book.” If your disability is primarily a result of substance abuse, you may not qualify for benefits. At Burnett Law, we can help you with this (ps. We do offer free consultations). 

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For example, if your sole disabling condition is drug addiction or alcoholism, you won’t be eligible for disability benefits. However, you can still apply for benefits if you have a disabling condition not solely related to substance abuse. Still, you must prove that your condition meets the medical criteria for disability. A history of drug or alcohol use does not automatically disqualify you from receiving Social Security Disability benefits. 

However, it does add an additional layer of complexity to your claim. The Social Security Administration (SSA) acknowledges that substance abuse can exacerbate existing disabilities or cause new impairments, making it an important factor to consider in the evaluation process.

Examples of how Substance Abuse Can Affect an SSDI Claim

Example 1: The applicant is asserting disability due to a severe back injury resulting from a car accident. It’s important to note that even if the claimant stopped abusing alcohol or drugs, the severity of the back injury would remain unchanged. Consequently, the judge cannot use substance abuse as a valid reason for denying the applicant.


Example 2: The applicant is dealing with uncontrolled diabetes, leading to frequent hospitalizations due to elevated blood sugar levels. Additionally, they engage in heavy alcohol consumption. It’s worth noting that alcohol abuse can worsen the applicant’s diabetes. If the applicant abstains from alcohol, their diabetes management could significantly improve. Consequently, if the judge determines that sobriety would enhance the applicant’s condition, they may consider denying the applicant’s claim.

The Role of Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)

RFC is a critical factor in disability determinations. It refers to your ability to perform work-related activities despite your impairments, considering both physical and mental limitations. Your RFC is assessed by a medical professional based on medical evidence and your reported symptoms.

For individuals with a history of substance abuse, providing comprehensive evidence of your RFC is essential. This evidence should clearly establish how your condition, separate from substance abuse, affects your ability to work. If your condition causes limitations that prevent you from performing any substantial gainful activity, you may be eligible for disability benefits.

Proving Disability Despite Substance Use History

To strengthen your disability claim, providing comprehensive and well-documented evidence is essential. Here are some key steps to consider:

  • Medical Records: Obtain and submit detailed medical records that clearly outline your disabling condition(s) and any related complications caused by substance use.


  • Treatment Records: Include records from rehabilitation programs, counseling sessions, or any other form of treatment you have undergone to address your substance use. This demonstrates your commitment to recovery.


  • Statements from Healthcare Professionals: Request written statements from your treating physicians or mental health professionals that describe the nature and severity of your disability and its relationship to your substance use history.


  • Functional Limitations: Emphasize how your disability affects your daily life, including your ability to perform basic tasks, maintain personal hygiene, or engage in work-related activities.


  • Prescription Medications: If you are prescribed medications to manage your disability or addiction, provide documentation of these prescriptions as they serve as evidence of your ongoing treatment and need for support.


  • Vocational Expert Testimony: In some cases, obtaining testimony from a vocational expert can be invaluable. They can assess your ability to work given your disability and substance use history.
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Demonstrating Sobriety and Commitment to Recovery

While a history of substance use does not automatically disqualify you, the SSA may want to see that you are taking steps toward recovery and maintaining sobriety. This may include:


  • Compliance with Treatment Plans: Adherence to prescribed treatment plans, whether for your disability, addiction, or both, demonstrates a commitment to your well-being.


  • Participation in Support Groups: Attendance in support groups or 12-step programs can further prove your dedication to maintaining sobriety.


  •  Counseling and Therapy: Regular attendance at counseling or therapy sessions can showcase your ongoing efforts to address both your disability and addiction.


  • Clean Drug Tests: Providing clean drug test results can be a powerful indicator of your commitment to recovery.

Substance Use While Receiving Benefits

If the SSA grants approval for your SSDI benefits application but suspects ongoing substance abuse, they may suggest enrollment in a substance abuse treatment program. Additionally, the SSA might stipulate the appointment of a representative payee entrusted with receiving and managing your SSDI payments. This representative payee will supervise the allocation of your SSDI benefits to ensure they are not using to enable a drug or alcohol addiction.

How Burnett Law SSA Disability Attorneys Can Strengthen Your Case

Navigating the complexities of the Social Security Disability application process can be challenging. For individuals facing disabilities, securing the benefits they rightfully deserve is often a critical lifeline. To ensure a smooth and successful journey through the intricate web of disability claims, contact Burnett Law.

Here is how Burnett Law SSD Disability attorneys can be a valuable asset in helping you win your Social Security Disability case:

In-depth knowledge of SSA Procedures and Regulations

SSA disability attorneys at Burnett Law are well-versed in the intricacies of the Social Security Administration (SSA). They know the rules, regulations, and procedures governing disability claims. This comprehensive understanding enables them to guide you through the process efficiently, ensuring that all necessary documentation and evidence are presented accurately and in a manner that aligns with SSA requirements.

Thorough Case Evaluation and Strategy Development

Burnett Law SSA disability attorneys take the time to thoroughly evaluate your case. They assess the nature and severity of your disability, review your medical records, and analyze the potential impact of any co-existing conditions or substance use history. Based on this assessment, they craft a tailored strategy to present your case in the most compelling light possible.

Expertise in Gathering and Presenting Medical Evidence

Building a solid foundation of medical evidence is crucial for a successful disability claim. Burnett Law attorneys are skilled in identifying the key medical records, treatment notes, and expert opinions necessary to substantiate your disability. They work closely with medical professionals to ensure all relevant information is documented and presented effectively to the SSA.

Assistance in Completing Application Forms

Filling out the myriad forms required for a disability claim can be daunting. Burnett Law SSA disability attorneys are adept at guiding you through this process, ensuring that every section is completed accurately and comprehensively. They can help you articulate the extent of your disability, detail your medical history, and provide the necessary supporting documentation.

Navigating Appeals and Administrative Hearings

If your initial application is denied, Burnett Law attorneys are prepared to navigate the appeals process on your behalf. They have the expertise to identify the specific reasons for denial and work to address them effectively. Should an administrative hearing be necessary, they will represent you before an Administrative Law Judge, presenting your case persuasively and advocating for your rights.


If you are applying for SSA benefits or have been denied due to a history of drug and alcohol use, contact Burnett Law at (931) 484-7549 for a free consultation.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog or on this website is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice on any specific subject matter. No person should act or refrain from acting due to any content included in the site without seeking legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from an attorney licensed in the person’s state. The Firm expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all the contents of this blog or website.

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