I recently received a question from a woman named Carol who wants to know if she should wait to file for benefits because she is planning on moving to a different state. She writes:
I own a condo in central Florida. My parents live in north Florida near the Georgia border. I plan on moving to Macon, Georgia (Macon is about 100 miles south of Atlanta in the middle of the state). Should I file now? Should I file now and use my parent’s address? Should I wait until I move to Macon to file?
Here are my thoughts: I would advise you to file now and to use your current address as your home address. If you are concerned that your mail may not get forwarded you can use your parent’s (permanent) address. In general it is not a good idea to wait to file. If you wait you may lose the right to claim some of your past due benefits, or in a worst case scenario, your coverage for Title II benefits could run out. If you are not working, and expect to be out indefinitely, I generally advise potential clients to file sooner rather than later.
Now – what about the location where you would file? At the initial and reconsideration level of appeal, your case will be processed by a State Agency adjudicator. Adjudicators follow fairly rigid protocols and I have not seen any documentation to suggest that an adjudicator in one state is more or less likely to approve a claim than an adjudicator in another state. Those statistics may exist but I have never seen then.
The initial and recon appeal will eat up between 6 months and a year, by which point you would presumably be in Macon. When you move you would notify Social Security and your file may be transferred to a State Agency adjudication office nearer to where you live. Then again, it might not be transferred. I think it is certainly possible that filing an address change, thereby triggering Social Security to move your file could add to a delay in the processing of your case, but my experience has been that the State Agency adjudicators are expected to complete their evaluation within a set period of time. I don’t know that having the file moved will significantly add to a delay. This is especially the case now that Social Security disability files are electronic – physical files are no longer involved so transferring a case is an electronic process.
The biggest wildcard when you change venues will involve the hearing offices. Some hearing offices house judges who approve very few cases. Other hearing offices tend to trend more favorably to claimants. On the other hand the tendencies of the specific judge assigned to your case are much more important than the hearing office statistics. You can research statistics about the ratios of approval by specific judges. Local lawyers who practice in a particular hearing office can also be a good source of advice.
Ultimately I don’t know that I would spend a lot of effort “judge shopping.” If you have a good case with compelling medical evidence and support from a treating physician, you stand a good chance at winning, while weak evidence will not convince even a judge who tends to favor claimants. Further, if you ask Social Security to change your hearing office venue at the last minute you will face delay as hearing calendars are often filled months in advance. If you hire one lawyer for location 1, then switch, you may end up paying more than 25% of your past due benefits as lawyer 2 will want to be paid.
At the very least, if you are thinking about hiring a lawyer in central Florida, let him or her know about your possible move – you want to make your case less complicated, rather than the other way around.