October 1, 2016

Can an Alcoholic Ever Qualify for Disability?

A number of years ago, Congress passed a number of changes to the Social Security disability laws that made disability claimants ineligible for benefits if alcohol or drug abuse was a material contributing factor to their disability.   As a result, most claimant’s lawyers are very reluctant to accept as clients individuals who are active alcoholics or whose doctors discuss in medical records abuse of narcotic medications.

Are there any circumstances when an alcoholic or drug abuser might still qualify for disability?

You may be surprised to learn that the answer to this question is “yes.”   If the alcoholic or drug user can prove that he/she has a mental or physical condition that leaves that claimant unable to work, and that this other condition exists independently of the alcohol or substance abuse, he/she can win.  In such a case, the claimant’ s disability would remain even if substance abuse was absent from the picture.   Such a distinction can be difficult to prove, but it can be done, especially if the claimant has a long treatment record from a treating physician and that physician is prepared to go  on record drawing those lines.

Similarly, I have won a couple of cases on behalf of alcoholics who have severe liver disease arising from drinking.  In one case in particular, I remember seeing blood chemistry test results that clearly documented liver failure in an individual who continued to poison himself with alcohol despite the very negative health implications.

On the other hand, Social Security judges will look much more sympathetically on a case filed by an active alcoholic or drug abuser if the claimant is making a sincere effort to treat the addiction.

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Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 29 years, Jonathan publishes a widely known disability blog, a podcast and several disability web sites. In 2004, Jonathan published a "how to" book about Social Security disability called the Disability Answer Guide. Jonathan lives with his wife and 2 children in Atlanta.


  1. Gerald W Riley says:

    I have represented a fair number of individuals with substance abuse issues. One important document is that there is an emergency teletype found at policy.ssa.gov in the EMs section(EM-96200). Basically, what I have learned is that if a person uses illicit substances, have a mental disorder, and they are being treated by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other licensed mental health professional such as a therapist and the treating person generates a letter that basically states the mental health condition of the claimant would still result in significant impairments in spite of the substance use adn describes these limitations then this has resulted in approvals for my clients. If you can not get this and the client can stay clean for 30 days and then if he is psychologically evaluated and his impairments are significantly limiting then this can lead to an approval. Another thing is that sometimes Judges do not have a logical basis to determine how a client can function without the use of substances…that is there is no clear record to show how effective they are if they are not using. This makes it tougher to say substance use is material. Finally, I have a case on appeal now over a diagnostic issue, my client used marijuana, it was well documented, but there is no diagnosis of substance abuse anywhere in the file by a therapist or psychologist. This includes the reviewing psychologist for the State Agency. Judges are not allowed to diagnose and a substance abuse diagnosis is required.

  2. wow thumbs up for this attorney after reading multiple inquiries this did it 4 me the attorney here is obviously a lawyer but working for the people damn!d like to get him on my case..40 freakin years of horrer given induced on me by bcw!!!!! to qualify for disability- have it -now they cutting me off!1973

    keep reading this is definitley a well informed good info site basically theres no other for us!cant wait to c the outcomes of this marijuana case.anybody know if skizophrania goes away?

  3. dear sir,
    -i was sexually abused and raped from approx age 6-8.So was my brother.I was obviously too young to seek “medical help”.I started self-medicating.
    I do qualify for disability,in 2 ways.I was able to put enough money in taxes to qualify for $1254 a month.and I have been diagnosed with PTSD,depression,anxiety disorder,agoraphobia.Unfortunatly i also have a substance abuse history.BUT thru therapy i found out that the ‘abuse” was th e primary cause of my mental disorders.According to what i have read about the criteria for ssi I am disabled.
    I have alot of medical and rehab hospitalizations.I have the records asking for help dealing with the “abuse”
    If you will give me a chance to give you more details and answer any qeustions you have,I feel like i have a good chance of winning my case.I NEED THE RIGHT LAWYER.I have witnesses,doctors and the truth at my disposal. INTERESTED?

  4. Edward J. McCabe says:

    To whom this may concern; I am an Alcoholic, and I’ve been trying to stay sober since 1999. I’ve been Diagnosed with Depression by all the Facilities I’ve been too…and there has been many. I just recently have been released from them Behavior Health Unit at Manchester Hopspital in CT. I have been able to stay sober for many months at a time…but I always relapse because of Massive Depression…even with months sober. I don’t know what to do. If this isn’t a disability…and you have Fat Lazy peopole who arent even trying to work..and they collect…then something is wrong with the system. I am always seeking work when sober…and I get good jobs…but the inevitable happens…I drink to self medicate..then bang..all is loss.

  5. andrew stallings says:

    I cant keep a job and i cant quit drinking

  6. what if the substance you abuse is percription pain killer and the treatment for your dissabilty caused the addiction in the first place

  7. @lance, I don’t believe that the abused substance needs to be illegal. Alcohol is legal but alcohol abuse can result in a denial if the judge feels that a claimant might be able to function in a simple job if he was sober. I think the same logic applies in your case. If you are addicted to prescription pain killers, a judge will ask (1) have you tried to beat the addiction? (2) if you were not taking pain killers, would you be able to work? If you have a chronic pain condition that would prevent you from working, then the pain killer abuse might not be a “material contributing factor” to your ongoing inability to work. I will note, however, that judges sometimes find it hard to draw those lines – you are much better off if you can beat the addiction (I know that is easier said than done). Best of luck to you.

  8. Lisa Schenzel says:

    Hi.  My brother is 53 and been a severe alcoholic and drug user for the past 20 years.  It spiraled out of control the last year.  He is currently in the hospital with Hep C, high b/p, early onset diabetes, and I'm guessing cirrhosis.  He has been in ICU and heavily sedated for one week with a few more days in the state expected.  I am trying to get him signed up for disability—provided he survives.  I have an appt via phone with Soc Sec in mid Dec.  Any advice or just give them the doctor's info?  We're hoping he will go to treatment and see the seriousness of his situation but no guarantees.


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