The Impact of Substance Abuse in a Social Security Disability Case

A person cannot be found disabled by the Social Security Administration due to substance abuse, whether it involves drug addiction or alcoholism. However, a person can be disabled despite the use of drugs or alcohol. The key legal issue is if substance abuse is a “contributing factor material to the determination of disability.”


Another issue with substance abuse involves the mindset of some Administrative Law Judges, who often do not want to find someone who uses drugs or alcohol disabled. Deciding that a person who has a history of using drugs or alcohol is not disabled regardless of any others facts in a case is a misapplication of the law, but it can occur.

This is a bigger problem when the history of substance abuse is more recent or ongoing. However, even if drug abuse or alcoholism is ongoing, you still could be disabled if you have other impairments that prevent you from working. It is the impact of substance abuse on your other impairments that must be considered under current Social Security law.


During a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) goes through five steps in evaluating your disability claim. In most cases, if you are found disabled due to physical or mental impairments resulting in limitations that make full-time work of any kind impossible, then you are entitled to disability payments. However, when alcohol or other drugs enter the picture, you may be found to meet the definition of disability during the five-step sequential evaluation, but you face an additional question that could prevent you from receiving those disability payments: Is substance abuse a contributing factor that is material to the finding that you are disabled? What this really is asking is whether you would be unable to work on a full-time basis if you stopped using drugs or alcohol. As long as your work-related limitations that remain after the impact of any substance abuse is removed make you unable to work, you are disabled.


According to the Code of Federal Regulations, when substance abuse is involved, the ALJ at your hearing has to look at your current physical and mental impairments that caused limitations in your ability to function at work and then decide which of them would continue to exist even if you stopped using drugs or alcohol. If at least one impairment remains that causes limitations that are disabling, then you are disabled regardless of the impact of substance abuse on other impairments. If no limitations from any of your impairments remain that would leave you unable to work after the impact of the use of alcohol or other drugs is removed, then substance abuse is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability — this means is that you cannot be found disabled.


It is important to note that the cause of any of your impairments does not matter. For example, you could have cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism, and the cirrhosis may prevent you from being able to work. If you no longer drink, then there is no need to consider the impact of continued use of alcohol. You could be found disabled by the Social Security Administration despite the fact that substance abuse caused the disabling condition.


However, when you have a potentially disabling condition but your substance abuse is ongoing, the situation becomes more complicated. The general belief is that you would bear the burden of proving that, even if you stopped using alcohol or other drugs, you would be disabled. This makes the determination of disability difficult under these circumstances.


Ultimately, not using drugs for a period of time is the strongest proof that substance abuse is not the reason that you should be found disabled. There is no “bright line” test for how long would be long enough. Of course, the longer the period involved, the better for your case because there will be more evidence of your actual condition without the effect of any continuing substance abuse. This helps to eliminate speculation and guesswork regarding the impact of alcohol or other drugs. If you remain incapable of working after you have been clean for some period of time, your case becomes much easier to prove. You would be wise to consider this before you apply for disability. Remember, if you really believe that you are disabled and that substance abuse does not contribute to this disability, you do not want to give the Social Security Administration an excuse to deny your claim.