A U. S. Supreme Court decision this week denied a Florida mother survivor benefits for twins conceived by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) after her husband died.  The court held unanimously that Karen Capato could not collect survivor benefits for the twins from the Social Security Administration (SSA).  She had the twins 18 months after her husband died, using his frozen sperm.

SSA turned the application down because Capato’s twins, who were conceived posthumously, did not qualify to inherit from their late father under Florida law.  The court states that SSA properly looked to state law to determine the children’s eligibility for the federal entitlement.  It is a growing phenomenon for persons with life-threatening illnesses or hazardous job duties (like soldiers headed into combat) to store sperm or, in some cases, embryos for later use.  The decision was limited to how the law applies in Florida; in other states, this situation may have had a different result, depending on the state laws of inheritance.

As a reminder, if you have a child whose other parent died while insured for Social Security benefits, that child is likely eligible for survivor benefits on the deceased parent’s record up to age 18, or age 19 if the child is still in high school.

The Social Security Administration and the Department of Defense (DoD) are working together to improve access to disability benefits for the nation’s Wounded Warriors, service members, veterans, and their dependents.  A new nationwide project enables Social Security disability case processing sites to receive military medical records from multiple DoD facilities with a single request to a centralized DoD site.  As of April 30, this initiative is in its first phase of nationwide expansion.  The thought is that receiving electronic medical records for military personnel will shorten the time it takes to make a disability decision according said Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security.  He is hopeful that the new process will improve the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of the disability program.

A pilot program had electronic medical records being received within 72 hours, a remarkable improvement over the previous average response time of five weeks for paper records from individual military treatment facilities.

I can attest to the fact that the medical records requests I make often take anywhere from 4-8 weeks and are often missing pages or hospital admissions, prompting a second request.  Without medical records, SSA is not able to make a decision, so claims are stalled.  I enthusiastically applaud any effort SSA makes to improve the speed of the decisions being issued.  Whether fast turn around time on medical records will improve the accuracy and efficiency of their decisions remains to be seen.


The Social Security Administration last month told its disability-claims judges they are no longer to seek out information from websites when deciding cases.  Some judges feel like being able to look for information online could help uncover fraud; Agency officials said reviewers can’t trust information posted online, and also said the mere act of typing in queries could compromise protected private information, so they shouldn’t try to access anything.  Social Security’s ban covers all Internet sites, including social media such as Facebook.

If an individual claims to be disabled, and then publicly posts a picture participating in a sport or physical activity on a social media website, such information should be used by adjudicators to determine if the claimant was truly disabled, suggests Senator Tom Coburn.

In my opinion, Social Security judges should not be looking for information online.  Often information is dated and a picture of a person holding a baby or sitting on the beach does not necessarily indicate that the individual is not disabled.  I believe that adjudicators should do what they are trained to do — review voluminous files to determine eligibility for disability benefits. If they have questions about an individual’s activities, the adjudicators have the option of asking the disability claimants questions during an administrative hearing.

Social Security earnings statements provide valuable information to American workers, including the monthly retirement and disability benefits to which they are entitled.  Last year, the Social Security Administration stopped sending out yearly earnings statements to individuals, claiming a savings of over $70 million dollars. It was virtually impossible to obtain information about past earnings or future benefits without visiting a Social Security office claiming an urgent need for the information.

Last week, the Social Security Administration unveiled an online tool which allows individuals to create a password-protected account and download a .pdf copy of their earnings statements.  I went online last week and within fifteen minutes, I had an updated earnings statement, current to 2011, despite the fact that I only filed my tax return about thirty days ago.  I was impressed and encourage everyone to keep tabs on the earnings the Social Security Administration is crediting to your Social Security number.

To try this out yourself, visit ssa.gov and look at the list of links on the left hand side of the page.  Click on the link that says “Get Your Social Security Statement Online” which is currently highlighted with a bulleted “NEW” tab.

Off to Philadelphia

May 1, 2012

I’m in Philadelphia at the National Organization of Social Security Claimant’s Representatives semi-annual conference.  I expect tension to be high due to the increasingly claimant-averse policies the Social Security Administration has recently implemented.  Despite that fact, I am excited to see colleagues from across the country.  It is nice to be in a place where everyone has the same goal:  to do a great job for individuals in need of Social Security Disability benefits.

I am looking forward to presenting a talk with attorney Lori Gaglione this Friday about communicating with your client in an efficient way.  I also serve on the NOSSCR Board of Directors so I will be attending Board meetings Wednesday and Thursday.  In between those commitments, I hope to attend a few seminars where I can learn things from industry leaders that will help me in my pursuit of benefits for my clients.  It’s hard to be away from the office for a week, but I know I bring back knowledge that will help me help my clients.  And I’ve left the office in good hands; my assistant Ruth is wonderful at managing things while I am gone.

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