Years ago, you could be eligible for Social Security disability benefits if you were an alcoholic. In 1996, that changed. Congress did an about-face, making alcohol addiction a hurdle to obtaining Social Security disability benefits. In a nutshell, you can’t receive Social Security disability benefits based on alcoholism. If alcoholism is your only impairment, you don’t qualify for disability benefits.
Alcoholism’s Effect on Disability Benefits
You can apply for disability for alcohol-related illnesses, or injuries or diseases that have nothing to do with alcohol, but to be granted disability, you would have to show that your disabling medical problems would exist even if you stopped drinking. And if you have a history of alcoholism but are not currently drinking, be prepared to prove this.
Social Security will try to determine if your alcoholism contributes to your disability (this is called a drug or alcohol addiction (DAA) determination). If so, you will not be granted disability benefits. But it doesn’t matter if your past drinking caused the condition, for example, alcoholic hepatitis of the liver brought on by drinking, just whether your current drinking is exacerbating the problem.
Consider an example. You have severe heart disease and apply for Social Security disability benefits because you can’t work as a result of your condition. If your drinking is found to exacerbate your heart disease, you won’t be granted disability benefits. However, if the SSA’s medical consultant believes that stopping drinking would not improve your condition, then your alcoholism is “immaterial,” or irrelevant to your case, and you could be approved.
For a more detailed explanation of the DAA determination, see our article on how drug abuse or alcoholism affects a disability claim. If you are approved for benefits and the SSA believes you can't manage your financial affairs responsibly because of your drinking, it will require you to use a representative payee, who will receive your Social Security checks and prevent you from spending the money on alcohol.
Disability Benefits for Substance Abuse Disorder
The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays benefits for an official disability called “substance addiction disorder.” This disorder recognizes that chronic alcoholism can cause severe alcohol-related illnesses, such as liver damage. To qualify for Social Security disability under this disorder, you qualify for the underling alchohol-related illnesses, not for substance abuse.
For your medical condition to be severe enough to meet the substance addiction disorder “listing” (the SSA’s official definition), you must have behavioral changes or physical changes associated with the regular use of alcohol that affect the central nervous system. The listing refers to several illnesses that can be caused by alcoholism:
- organic mental disorders, also known as organic brain syndrome or OBS (listing 12.02)
- depression syndrome (listing 12.04)
- anxiety disorders (listing 12.06)
- personality disorders (listing 12.08)
- peripheral neuropathies, also known as nerve damage (listing 11.14)
- liver damage (listing 5.00)
- gastritis (listing 5.04)
- pancreatitis (listing 5.08), and
- seizures (listing 11.02 or 11.03).
To qualify for disability benefits for substance abuse disorder, you would have to fulfill the SSA’s requirements for one of the underlying illnesses above. For instance, if you suffer from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism, you would have to show you that suffer from specific severe symptoms listed by the SSA under chronic liver disease, such as hydrothorax (fluid accumulation in the lung cavity), peritonitis (abdominal infection), or hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction caused by liver failure). However, if you are still drinking, the SSA would also have to make a DAA determination to determine if your liver problems would go away if you stopped drinking. If your liver problems would remain – that is, the damage is irreversible – you would qualify for disability benefits.
Disability Benefits Unrelated to Alcoholism
If you have disabling physical or mental problems not related to alcohol, and the problems would exist even if you stopped drinking, you can qualify for SSI or SSDI disability benefits. You will get disability benefits for an unrelated impairment if you meet the SSA’s stringent requirements and if you can pass the SSA’s DAA determination.
Technically, the SSA will determine whether your drug addiction is a “contributing factor material to the determination of disability.” Again, consider an example. You have an eye condition resulting from a brain injury, and the eye condition makes it nearly impossible for you to sustain gainful employment. If you are also an alcoholic, but your doctor says that your eye condition is in no way caused or worsened by your drinking, the SSA will approve your claim for disability benefits.
If you have a valid disability but are denied benefits because of your alcoholism, and either you no longer drink or your doctor says that you’d have the disability even if you quit drinking, get the help of an experienced disability attorney who can help you get benefits.