11 Steps to Effectively Apply for Long Term Disability in 2023

February 17, 2023 | J. Price McNamara
11 Steps to Effectively Apply for Long Term Disability in 2023

Whether you have long-term disability insurance through your employer or you bought a long-term disability policy on your own, the policy does not guarantee you will receive benefits.

While you have rights under the law, you must understand your rights and know how to assert them to get the results you want. ERISA covers employer-sponsored plans and actually complicates matters for applicants wanting in many respects. Whether ERISA applies to your case or not, you will still have to deal with an insurance company that will deny claims whenever it can.

To increase your chances for success, you should focus closely on your claim, and take time to make sure you do everything right.

To help you build the strongest case possible, you should hire an attorney to advise you during the process. Although you have the right to appeal a denial of benefits, the best thing is to not get in that position in the first place.

Here are 11 steps that you can take to improve your odds of success when you apply for long-term disability benefits.

Review Your Plan Document

Your first step is to review the summary plan description (SPD). If you do not have a copy already, you can get one from your employer's human resources department. The SPD will contain important information regarding your long-term disability insurance benefits, including how you can participate in the plan and how you can apply for benefits.

The SPD will also include the insurance company's definition of "disability," which is extremely important for you to understand to determine if you qualify.

The insurance company will have various forms you must complete and specific ways that they want to see the information. You must closely follow the instructions they provide because it could make a difference in whether they approve your claim.

By closely reviewing the SPD, you can build a roadmap to preparing your claim and stay organized throughout the process.

Many times, SPDs contain a lot of technical terms and legal jargon that can be hard to understand. For help understanding the terms of the policy and submitting your application, you should consult an experienced long-term disability attorney.

Notify Your Employer

You must notify your employer that you cannot return to work because of your disability. You should also tell them that you intend to file for disability benefits.

You will also need an employer statement when you submit your claim. The employer statement will include information such as your name and job description, as well as when you last worked and whether you ever returned to work. You may have to include other information as well, and you will need to complete the form in detail and provide all the information the insurance company asks for.

Get a Detailed Diagnosis

To receive disability benefits, you will have to show that you cannot work in your profession and continue to earn a living. Your physician will need to provide a detailed diagnosis of your condition along with a prognosis as to how your condition will prevent you from working in the future.

Your diagnosis and prognosis should be very clear and leave no doubt about your condition. The insurance company is not going to give you the benefit of the doubt, nor will it draw any inferences in your favor in reviewing your diagnosis.

Before filing your claim, you should visit as many physicians as you need as many times as necessary to obtain a comprehensive diagnosis. You should include this in the paperwork that you submit to the insurance company. This must go far beyond just a description of your symptoms. It is not enough for you to say that you are disabled when you submit a claim. Instead, you must prove it. In addition, you will need to sign a release that gives the insurance company access to your medical records to evaluate. These records should be thorough and document your condition.

You should pay close attention to whom you select as a doctor to write the necessary physician's statement. Preferably, you should work with a physician with experience in diagnosing people with long-term conditions. This is important when they describe your condition. The doctor should know how to properly document your condition in a way that the insurance company will understand. A sparsely documented diagnosis will cause the insurance company to ask more questions.

Finally, your medical file should include more than just the physician's opinion. Insurance companies are increasingly taking a “prove it” attitude toward disability claims. They want to see objective evidence that backs up your claim.

This could include:

  • MRIs
  • CT scans
  • Blood panel tests
  • EKGs

The insurance company wants something that they can look at on paper to verify what your doctor is saying. Hopefully, your health insurance will cover these tests. Even if they do not, these may be things that you need to receive long-term disability insurance.

Document Your Condition

The basis for long-term disability is that you have limitations that prevent you from working. If you find that you have any physical limitations, you should document them in a journal. Keep notes about your condition in an organized log, and make sure to have it easily available. If you miss out on certain things or find that you cannot do something else that you previously enjoyed, make sure to write it down.

Know Who You Are Dealing With

The insurance company has a great deal of power over your claim since they decide whether to grant benefits (although they do not have the final say over the matter). The insurance company's interests are not the same as yours. They look after their own bottom line, and paying claims reduces their profits. You can assume that they will be looking for reasons to deny your claim and make things harder on you.

Although you can sue insurance companies for not following ERISA rules, it is difficult to file a lawsuit over them denying your claim because the law protects them almost more than it protects you. Therefore, you can assume that you will not get the benefit of the doubt from them. This is why you need to double your efforts to get your paperwork and documentation exactly right before you file. This could mean the difference between the insurance company granting benefits or denying your claim. The rule of thumb in every long-term disability claim is that the insurance company is not your friend.

Follow the Insurance Company’s Instructions

Insurance companies increasingly require claimants to see “independent” doctors for evaluations. While your own doctor has diagnosed you, the insurance company may want confirmation or for you to see someone else. They may have the right to do that as part of the claims process. While it may feel like a hassle, you will need to take this step if the insurance company asks. This happens at the insurance company's expense.

Follow all of these steps and give honest answers about your symptoms and medical conditions. Otherwise, this could give the insurance company grounds to deny benefits.

Don't, however, fall into the traps that these “independent” doctors may set for you. Remember, these doctors work for the insurance company, not you. Their job is to protect company profits, not to honestly diagnose your condition. Often, they lack the training or qualifications necessary to evaluate your condition.

Make sure you talk to a long-term disability lawyer before the appointment. An experienced ERISA lawyer can prepare you for the exam so you don't sabotage your claim.

Learn Why the Insurance Company Might Deny Your Claim

To increase your chances of success, you need to understand why the insurance company may deny your claim. This will help you focus on what you need to include in your claim and mistakes to avoid that may sink your application.

Some common reasons insurance companies deny ERISA disability claims include:

  • They do not believe the medical evidence supports your claim
  • They do not think that your condition meets the plan’s definition of disability
  • You do not have enough documentation of your condition
  • Your application is missing some required paperwork
  • You missed a deadline contained in your plan document
  • The insurance company believes that they have evidence inconsistent with what you are saying in your claim
  • The insurance company disagrees with your doctor
You can appeal a claim denial. However, the best thing is to win at the application stage. If you can anticipate why a claim may receive a denial, you can prepare your claim accordingly to hopefully avoid those pitfalls.

Complete All the Required Paperwork

You may be overwhelmed with the amount of paperwork that a long-term benefits claim asks you to complete. These are all necessary to receive benefits, and the insurance company may deny a claim if it is incomplete. There may be exhaustive questionnaires that ask you for a great deal of detail about your life and your symptoms.

You must answer all of the questions honestly. Otherwise, the insurance company may use this to deny your claim. At the same time, you should not give too much information because the insurance company could base its decision on what it thinks you can do. The key question is whether they think that you have the physical ability to work at your job.

Review Your Claim

Your claim must be mistake-free. You never quite know what may cause the insurance company to deny your claim, and the insurance company will put its interests first. For your part, you should make sure that your claim is not missing any of the required paperwork because this could hold up the consideration of your claim.

You should also ensure that your claim is telling a consistent story from start to finish. Take the time to review everything in your claim and compare it against the plan document and requirements. Never submit the claim right after completing it. Instead, put it aside for a little bit and check it over multiple times. If you need outside help, have someone else review your application because a second set of eyes could catch something that you may have missed.

At some point, you may need a lawyer's help in the claims process. The best time to hire an attorney is before you file the initial claim. A lawyer will be familiar with the claims process and how the insurance company operates. They can help you avoid common mistakes now that could lead to a claim denial. It may make sense to invest some money upfront and have a better chance of getting the benefits that you need now. This is a process that you do not want to handle on your own.

Be Careful About What You Do

You have to assume that the insurance company is watching you throughout the long-term disability application process. This is not a matter of paranoia. It is a matter of fact. These companies will do anything that they can to avoid paying claims because it costs them money. If they can find a reason to reject your claim, they will. This includes hiring investigators to watch you, physically and online, while your application is pending.

The insurance company may try to catch you doing something that would be inconsistent with what you have said in your claim or doctor's orders. This could include monitoring your social media to see what activities you are posting about. Be very careful with the privacy settings on your social media. The best practice is to post very little at all when your claim is in front of the insurance company. In addition, you should be very careful about what activities you do during this time.

Act like someone is following you because they could very well try to gather evidence to use against you. Should you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to a long-term disability insurance lawyer to get answers.
J. Price McNamara Author Image

J. Price McNamara


Losing my own brother, then my father and sister after long, disabling illnesses just a few months apart drove a career change for me. Before that experience, I never truly understood the place you’re in. I never understood the dramatic impact that receiving (or not receiving) the disability and life insurance benefits you paid for and counted on can have on your life especially when you need to focus on family and healing. What I experienced with my own family now drives the way I view my clients and my work, and I will never forget it!

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