Can I Get Disability Benefits for Alcoholism?

You can no longer win Social Security disability by claiming alcoholism as an impairment, but many alcoholics suffer from other disabling conditions that might qualify.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Years ago, you could qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you were an alcoholic. In 1996, Congress changed the rules. Since then, alcohol addiction has actually become a hurdle to obtaining disability benefits. In a nutshell, you can't get Social Security disability benefits based on alcoholism.

If alcoholism is your only impairment, you don't qualify for disability benefits. Under the current rules, if you have another disability and you're addicted to alcohol, your addiction will affect the way Social Security handles your disability claim.

Here's what you need to know about how the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers alcoholism in making a disability determination, and how being dependent on alcohol can affect your benefits.

How Does Alcoholism Affect Disability Benefits?

Whether you apply for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability, alcohol addiction can affect your claim and your benefits. But having a substance use disorder doesn't prevent you from filing a disability claim.

Although you can't apply for disability benefits based on alcoholism itself, you can apply for benefits based on:

  • alcohol-related illnesses (like liver disease)
  • alcohol-related injuries (like a back injury caused by a DUI-related accident), or
  • diseases and injuries that have nothing to do with alcohol (like severe asthma).

But no matter what impairment you're claiming, to win disability benefits, you'll have to show that your disabling medical problems would exist even if you stopped drinking. And if you have a history of alcoholism but don't currently drink, you may need to prove that you're no longer drinking.

How Social Security Decides If Drinking Disqualifies Your Claim

Social Security will try to determine if your alcoholism contributes to your disability using a process called "drug or alcohol addiction (DAA) determination." If the DAA determination shows that your current drinking is causing your impairment or making it worse, you won't qualify for disability benefits.

Consider an example. Let's say you have severe heart disease and apply for Social Security disability benefits because you can't work as a result of your condition. If Social Security finds that your drinking makes your heart disease worse, you won't get disability benefits. But, if the SSA's medical consultant believes that your condition wouldn't improve enough for you to work if you stopped drinking, then Social Security would consider your alcoholism "immaterial," or irrelevant, to your case, and your disability claim could be approved.

Learn more about how Social Security's DAA determination process could affect your disability claim.

Will Social Security Require a Representative Payee?

If you're approved for benefits, and the SSA thinks you might not be able to manage your financial affairs responsibly because of your drinking, you'll be required to use a representative payee. Your representative payee would receive your monthly Social Security benefits and manage your money (including paying your rent, medical bills, and other expenses) so that you couldn't spend the money on alcohol.

Getting Benefits for a Disability Caused by Alcoholism

Until 2017, Social Security had an official impairment listing for a disability called "substance addiction disorder." This listing recognized that chronic alcoholism could cause severe alcohol-related illnesses, like liver damage and depression. But, to qualify for Social Security disability under this listing, you had to meet the requirements for the underlying alcohol-related illnesses, not for substance abuse itself.

Social Security no longer has a disability listing for substance abuse disorder (since 2018), but you can still qualify for disability benefits if you have an impairment that the SSA recognizes can be caused by alcoholism, including:

For instance, if you suffer from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism, you could qualify for disability if you can show that you suffer from the specific severe symptoms detailed in Social Security's listing for chronic liver disease, such as:

  • hydrothorax (fluid accumulation in the lung cavity)
  • peritonitis (abdominal infection), or
  • hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction caused by liver failure).

In addition, if you're still drinking, Social Security would have to make a DAA determination to decide if your liver problems would go away if you stopped drinking. If your liver problems would remain—that is, the damage is irreversible—you should qualify for disability benefits even though your alcohol abuse caused your condition and you're still drinking.

When Your Disability Isn't Due to Your 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 SSDI or SSI disability benefits. But if Social Security believes you're addicted to alcohol, to get disability benefits for an unrelated impairment, you'd need to meet the SSA's stringent listing requirements and pass the DAA determination.

For example: Let's say you have a degenerative disc disease and spinal nerve root compression, and the condition makes it nearly impossible for you to sustain gainful employment. If you're also an alcoholic, but your doctor says that your condition is in no way caused or worsened by your drinking, Social Security should approve your claim for disability benefits.

How to Apply and Get Help With Your Disability Claim

You can get your disability claim started by filling out the application online. You also have the option to apply by phone (by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213) or make an appointment to apply in person at your local Social Security office. (Learn more about the Social Security disability application process.)

If you have questions or concerns about how your past or current alcohol use will affect your claim, or if you'd like help with your application, you have the right to hire a disability lawyer or advocate to help with your application.

And if you're denied benefits, you have the right to appeal. If Social Security denied your claim because of your alcoholism, and you no longer drink, or your doctor says that you'd have the disability even if you quit drinking, you should consider getting help with your appeal from a disability lawyer.

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