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How To Prepare To Leave Work And Go On Disability


Even if you plan to leave work permanently, financial planners suggest that it is preferable to announce that you expect your leave to only be temporary and that you hope to return. That way, you will have full advantage of what legal protections are available -- including possibly premium payments for the first 12 weeks as required under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

If your current plans are only to take a limited amount of time off because of your health condition, plan as if you are going to leave work on disability permanently "just in case".

The steps to take to prepare to leave work on disability are as follows.  Once you decide what steps to take in your particular situation, create a time line for actions to take. For a sample chart to help you assemble the steps and create a timeline, see: Sample Timeline For Leaving Work. For the actual steps to take when you are ready to stop work, see: Leaving Work Because of Disability - The Steps To Take

Find an advisor at work if you do not have one.

If you haven’t before, now is the time to identify a person at work who can act as an advisor and give you advice about the best way of leaving work on disability and maximizing your benefits. Preferably it is someone high up in the executive chain of command who can even bend a few rules for you. It must be someone you feel will keep your discussions to him or her self. (For more information about an advisor at work and how to find one, click here.) You may be surprised at the level of support your employer is willing to give you. For example, Cheryl only worked an hour a day, then went home because she was so sick. The employer paid her full salary on the basis that it was being supportive.

Speak with other people who have gone onto disability if you can.

  • Keep your eyes open for other people in your company who go on disability or who have been on disability.
  • Speak with them about tips they learned about your employer and various personnel from their experience of going on disability.
  • Did your employer stick to the rulebook or go beyond it, or have trouble even meeting the minimums?
  • If your employer went beyond what is required by law or the benefit plans, what were the circumstances? Are they similar to yours?
  • How can you get the same treatment?

If you haven't disclosed your health condition at work, you don't have to disclose it to find out about another person's experiences. If you do disclose your condition, let each person you speak with know that you haven't told, so they don't inadvertently divulge the information if they speak with other people at work. Unlike your employer, there is no legal requirement for co-workers to keep your health condition a secret.

Consider whether there can be an accommodation that would permit you to continue to do your job.

  • If the accommodation would be working part-time instead of full-time, find out if and how the change would affect your benefits if you become totally disabled later, including your health insurance, and the amount of your disability income insurance.
    • If the number of hours worked reduces your status from "full time" to "part time," you may lose your health insurance.
    • If the reduction in hours is accompanied by a reduction in pay, the lower pay may affect the amount of your disability income.
  • You may be surprised at how accommodating an employer can beAt least one Fortune 500 company was known to keep paying employees who would show up and just sit at their desks for an hour a day. The company thought they were supporting their employees.
  • To learn about accommodations and how to negotiate for one, click here.

If no accommodation is possible, consider whether there are other jobs you could perform.

  • To permit you to perform the essential functions of your job, are there other jobs for which you are qualified that you could still perform, even if not for the same employer?
  • If so, it is likely that Social Security will not consider you to be disabled. Depending on the definition used by your employer, you may not be “disabled” under employer plans as well.

Make sure your doctor supports your decision to go on disability.

  • Let your doctor know you are considering going on disability. Make sure she or he supports your decision. Without your doctor's support, it will be virtually impossible to leave with disability benefits. Ask your doctor:
    • How much choice do you have medically speaking about the timing?
    • Does the doctor see a potential change at work that could permit you to continue working?
    • Does the doctor believe you will qualify for "disability" as defined by Social Security? For more information, see SSDI: Filing a Claim.
  • Look at our article on Applying for Social Security Disability to learn what you need the doctor to write for purposes of applying for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI). The doctor's cooperation is essential to have a real chance at obtaining SSDI or SSI.
  • If you have questions about your doctor's experience in this area or opinion, ask for a second opinion.

Review your medical charts to make sure they include symptoms that will support a claim for disability.

  • In addition to listing symptoms, it would be very helpful if your medical records also reflected how your symptoms impact your job specifically. If the records don't include these notes, ask your doctor to add them -- at least from now on. For example, you don't want to just say you experienced nausea three mornings last week. It would be better to state which days and the effect the nausea had specifically on work -- "I was so nauseous last Tuesday, Thursday and Friday morning that I was more than two hours late for work each of those days." Or that you can only sit at a desk for 30 minutes at a time, or stand for 15 minutes at a time, or lift 15 pounds in each hand.
  • The doctor should also include her conclusions about how your condition is impairing you. For example, that you cannot life more than 15 pounds in each hand. It would also help if the doctor would state the medical findings on which she is making her notation.
  • Note even your minor complaints. Even if smaller problems don't entirely disable you, they may prevent you from doing certain jobs.

If you have a tax advantage medical savings account, check your spending.

  • If you have a health insurance policy with a high deductible and a tax advantage account in which you lose the money if you don’t spend it by year end, look at how much you’ve spent and project how much is likely to be spent by year end. If you’ll lose money in the account, now is the time to spend it, whether on your needs or other people that may be permitted by your plan.

Keep a work journal.

  • If you haven’t been doing it, start keeping a journal of your symptoms, including how your symptoms specifically impact your ability to work. We call it a Work Journal.
  • Your notes will likely be more detailed than your doctor’s notes. For example, don’t just say “night sweats made me tired.” Instead say “night sweats throughout the night kept me from sleeping more than 2 hours so I couldn’t function mentally at work the next day” or “the lack of sleep caused my coordination to be so off kilter that I broke a machine.”
  • NOTE: Also keep notes in your Work Journal about anything that happens that could be part of a discrimination claim. 
  • To learn more about a Work Journal, click here

Check all the disability programs that may be available to you to learn how much income you will receive. 

  • Keep in mind that definition of the word "disability" depends on the context in which it is used. "Disability" is likely to have different definitions in employer leave policies, disability policies, or for government programs. Look at what evidence exists and arguments you can put together to help you be "disabled" within the meaning of each situation. Look at::
  • Your employer's policy concerning Sick Leave (time off with pay due to illness or injury).
  • Your employers Short Term Disability policy or insurance.
  • State Mandated Disability Benefits.
  • Your employer's Long Term Disability policy or insurance (Group Long Term Disability Insurance).
  • Your individual Disability Insurance policy if you have one.
  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

To help determine if you are or could be "disabled" we suggest you read: While You Are Still Working, Preparing To File For An Income Due To Your Health Condition (Disability). Also, if you can, obtain a copy of what Social Security looks for in determining whether there is a "disability" for your health condition. To learn how, get a Survivorship A to Z Personalized Guide if you don't have one already. Look in the "Government Benefits" section. Thanks to our donors, Survivorship A to Z Personalized Guides are generated automatically by the computer, and they are free. See the icon in the left hand margin to obtain your own Survivorship A to Z Personalized Guide.

If you don't fit the definition of "disability", that doesn't mean you shouldn't apply for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), you may still qualify based on the combination of factors you have. You can always provide new facts, or reapply, if you are turned down.

If you aren't clear whether your condition fits the various definitions of disability that are important to you, ask for the advice of someone who has had experience in this area, such as a social worker or someone at your local disease specific nonprofit organization.

Keep in mind that "disability" can be mental as well as physical or a combination of the two.

  • If your symptoms don't clearly add up to "disability," consider working with a mental health worker.
  • For purposes of determining whether you are "disabled" for Social Security purposes, therapists in order of preference are:
    • Psychiatrist, an M.D. with a specialty in mental health.
    • Psychologist with a Ph.D.
    • Psychologist with a master's degree.
    • Social Worker or similar person -- the greater the educational background the better.

Learn what happens to other benefits.

  • How much will you have to pay for your COBRA coverage? If you are covered by the federal law, the maximum you can be charged during the first 18 months of disability is 102% of the premium your employer pays on your behalf.
    • One way to find out how much you will have to pay under COBRA type continuations of your health coverage without "tipping off" your plans to your employer, would be to ask a co-worker who recently left work what cost he or she is paying.
    • If you can't afford the COBRA payments:
      • Can you afford health insurance through the private market? See offsite link for information about available policies and prices in your state.
      • Can you qualify for Medicaid?
      • Does your spouse or significant other have health coverage that covers you?
      • Could your spouse or significant other change employers to get you covered?
      • Is it time to stop thinking about it, and to get married to that person who happens to have spousal coverage?
    • Does your health insurance have an "extension"? An extension extends coverage for a health condition beyond the termination of the policy for a period of time without any further premium payments. Extensions aren't talked about a lot because they're free. Check to see if your policy has an extension in it.
    • Group Life Insurance Will the group life insurance continue under Waiver of Premium (premiums are waived but coverage continues), either because of a provision built into the policy or because your employer voluntarily continues to pay the premiums? If not, how much will it cost to convert the insurance to individual insurance? If there is a waiver of premium provision, decide when to apply for it and make an alert on your personal calendar (not the one at work.) Keep paying premiums until you get confirmation in writing from the life insurance that the waiver is in effect.
    • 401(k) or other retirment plan  No matter why you're leaving you're entitled to get any you paid in to your employer's 401(k) or 403(b) plan. Unless you're vested, you do not have a right to any money your employer contributed to your account. Vesting usually takes five years. If there is only a short time before you're vested, consider waiting, possibly with a reasonable accommodation or paid time off in the meantime. Do you have the right to withdraw money while on disability? If so, is there a tax penalty for withdrawal? Cashing out all the money in the plan would subject all the money to tax and possibly a penalty. It is preferable to roll it over, for instance into a tax-deferred Individual Retirement Account.
    • Compensation  Is there accumulated vacation you can use or for which you can receive payment? If you usually receive an annual bonus, negotiate to receive your bonus on a pro-rated basis. If you have stock options, is stopping work because of disability the same as leaving workLeaving work usually triggers a period of time to exercise the options or lose them.
    • Can you take any other benefits with you? Can you convert them to individual coverage?  Will you have to pay for them? If so, how much?
    • Public Benefits  Check with your state Health Department to find out if you or your dependents are eligible for public health insurance such as Medicaid or State Children's Health Insurance programs. Under HIPAA, you may also be eligible to enroll in your spouse's health plan under a special enrollment period. You can locate your state health department through: offsite link
  • Think about what you want to ask for if your employer is open to ideas.

Take a look at your finances.

  • The reality is that your income on disability will probably be less than it is now. Your expenses would seemingly be less, but they may even increase because of unreimbursed medical expense.
  • Now is the time to start considering the changes you may have to make in your lifestyle. It may even be a time to start making them -- such as moving to less expensive quarters while you're feeling okay.
  • Consider what income you will have and from what sources. For example, will you qualify for government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI)Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?
  • Consider your likely expenses -- including cost of medical care. Will you qualify for Medicaid (Medi-cal in California) and/or Medicare?
  • If cash looks like it will be a problem, consider taking a home equity loan or other loan now while you still have an income and qualify. At least get a home equity or other line of credit. Find out what you have to do to keep it in tact.
  • Consolidate loans, except student loans. Student loans are forgiven if you become disabled, but not if you redo them by consolidation or otherwise.
  • For more information, see: 

Are you entitled to a medical leave of absence?

Will the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or a similar state law protect you? If so, in addition to protecting your job for your return, these laws require your employer to keep your health insurance in place and to pay the same portion of the premium the employer pays while you are working.

  • How much will you have to pay in premiums to keep your health insurance?
  • Are there other benefits that will also have to be continued for you because of the FMLA?

Is there a Medical Leave of absence policy at your employer's which may protect if you are not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act? Or, even if you are covered by the FMLA, would the employer's plan continue a benefit longer than the FMLA?

Think about what you want to ask for if your employer is open to ideas to help you.

For instance:

  • You want your full salary to continue as long as possible and for your employer to pay your continuing health insurance premiums.
  • If your employer has a disability income insurance policy or an internal policy to keep paying salary, wouldn't it be great if you could get an increase in salary now so your disability income would be based on the higher level?
  • Even if the employer doesn't have a policy of continuing salaries, maybe you can convince them to continue yours because of the contributions you've made to the company over the years.

Develop a timeline.

  • Chart a timeline. Start with the date you intend to leave. Then work backward setting dates to accomplish tasks in preparation for leaving. For an example of a timeline, click here.
  • Make alerts on your computer or in your diary well before the deadline by which you must access any and all benefits. For example, your life insurance. If you have the right to convert it, by what date must you notify the insurance company? If you have a waiver of premium due to disability, by what date after leaving work must you inform the insurance company?

Start preparing the paperwork.

  • It is advisable to start to assemble the Claim Forms you will need to apply for the various benefits to which you may be entitled. To avoid letting your employer know too much too soon, obtain these forms from the internet as much as possible. Otherwise, you may want to wait until after you notify your employer about your leave.
  • You can ask a friend, family member of social worker to help you fill out the forms. Two heads are better than one- especially when you’re not feeling well.

Don't burn your bridges with your employer.

Even if you want to tell your employer what you really think about it, and even if you think it won't matter because you won't be returning to work, particularly for this employer -- don't! There is no way to predict the future. There is no way to predict how an employer can be useful in a transition to disability, or once you are on it. For example, if you continue your health coverage through COBRA, you may want to ask the employer to help if the insurance company says "no."

Start thinking outside the box about life without work.

  • While on disability, what do you want to do with your time? For some people on disability, their illness becomes their life. Not just going to the doctors, but reading about it and thinking about it. A job provides more than income. It can also be a source of companionship and provide a sense of achievement and self-worth. Think about what you enjoy most about your work. Think about how you can do something that will provide the same or similar gratification/joy.
  • How do you want to tell people about going on disability? Even if you just tell people you're taking some time off, it's an act of disclosure. How much do you want to tell people?
  • Consider family issues Being at home will change the family dynamic. What kind of signal will your being at home send to the kids?
  • Prepare for the emotions that will come up before you leave work as well as the emotions of being on disability. For many people work provides a sense of purpose and identity and co-workers become a second family. The change can create a crisis for the employee and family. The change can create a crisis for the employee and family.
  • Start putting support systems in place Include family, friends, any health professionals you may need, your local disease specific non-profit and spiritual center.
  • What can you do to give yourself a treat without hurting the finances you'll need? Is there a trip you've always wanted to take?

NOTE: When you are ready to stop work, read: Leaving Work Because Of Disability: The Steps To Take

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