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By Jacques Chambers
As discussed in an earlier column (April, 2003), it is often difficult to know just when the appropriate time is to leave work on disability. One reason for the difficulty is not knowing exactly how to go about it. Many people assume that they will have to stop work “someday” but vagueness about the process can cause people to continue working long after it becomes detrimental to their health.
Learning how to leave work is a good step toward making the actual decision. It is also made easier if the whole process is broken down into a series of manageable steps. Here are some suggestions on setting a timetable to be implemented when the decision is made that it will soon be time to leave:
BEFORE LEAVING OR TELLING ABOUT YOUR PLANS TO LEAVE
Assemble Plan Documents – You need to obtain current copies of all the “rulebooks” for all the employee benefits that you are covered by, even the ones you won’t be needing immediately. They include the “Summary Plan Descriptions” for
Health, Vision, Dental benefits
Short Term and Long Term Disability benefits
Leave of Absence Policy (This will tell you how long you will be kept as an employee once you leave work on disability)
Group life insurance policy
401(k) or other pension plans under which you are covered
These can be obtained from the Benefits Department, or Human Resources or whoever handles benefits in your company. You don’t have to tell them you are planning to leave. If you are concerned that they will suspect something, simply tell them that you are doing some estate planning and the planner said he/she needs to know all your current benefits to get a better idea of just what you may need in addition.
Know Your Benefits – The main questions you need to know answers to are:
How long will you be on disability before your employment is terminated? This will tell you how long they will save your position and maintain your benefits; depending on the employer, it may be longer than the twelve weeks provided by the FMLA.
What happens to your health insurance upon termination? COBRA, or is your company one of the few that will continue health coverage as long as you are disabled?
What short term disability benefits are available from sick leave or short term benefits?
When do long term disability benefits start?
Is there a period between sick leave/short and the start of long term that you will be without income?
Does the life insurance have a Disability Waiver of Premium benefit that will continue the coverage in force without premium payment?
Set the Date – Work with your doctor and determine an appropriate date for you to leave work. Make sure that you see the doctor again on or about the time you leave or announce your intention to your employer so that the medical record will match your actions.
ONE TO TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE DATE YOU PLAN TO LEAVE
Notify Management of Leaving – Notify your employer, “The doctor has said I must take some time off,” and ask what documentation you need provide. It is recommended that you do this at the highest level in Human Resources with which you feel comfortable, not with your immediate supervisor.
You should not announce your intention more than a few days to a week before leaving, never more than two weeks. Remember, you are not leaving by choice. Your health problems require you to.
If pushed to give your diagnosis in the interview and you are not comfortable doing so, you can divert it by saying, “That will all be in the paperwork.” If they are persistent about a diagnosis, you may want to ask, “Who besides you will need to know my actual diagnosis? I really don’t want it spread all over.” If you are dealing with a high enough level in HR, they will know the confidentiality laws about disclosing your condition and be more likely to abide by them.
When asked when you plan to return, be vague: “The doctor says at least four to six weeks, possibly eight to ten weeks.” (Keep it below the 12 week limit for the FMLA).
Request all the paperwork – You will need some paperwork to start the process:
FMLA claim form (may be combined with STD form);
Short Term Disability claim form;
State Disability claim form if you live in New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, California or Hawaii;
It is not necessary to request the LTD or other forms needed for a longer disability yet.
Confirm whether your payroll deductions that cover your portion of the benefits will be taken from the STD payment or must be paid by you directly to the employer. Note especially how to continue paying for the supplemental life insurance if you have it.
It is a personal decision whether to tell your immediate supervisor directly. If you feel you must tell him/her personally, I don’t recommend going into the diagnosis or actual time expected to be out.
IMMEDIATELY UPON STOPPING WORK
File for benefits – Complete claim forms and submit them. If possible, have the employer and doctor return their completed portions of the form to you so you can file them in one package and track it to make sure it is received.
Pay for your portion of the benefits – Make arrangements with payroll to pay your portion of insurance if they won’t be withheld from your short term check.
Stay in touch – Ask HR or payroll how often they need to hear from you while you are out.
Remember: As far as they know, you are leaving for a brief period and will return.
SIX WEEKS AFTER LAST DAY WORKED
Extend Your Disability – Notify HR that the doctor does not feel you are able to return yet. Request:
Paperwork to extend Medical Leave to its maximum.
If asked about permanent leaving, simply tell them the truth, “I hope not, but my doctor can’t comment one way or another. It’s clearly not resolved yet.”
Confirm how long you will be kept as an employee before being terminated (along with your benefits and job protection), “just in case” you are disabled that long.
Get claim forms – Now is the time to collect all the claim forms you will need for the extended disability:
SIX TO EIGHT WEEKS BEFORE LTD BENEFITS WILL START
File for long term disability benefits. Complete claim forms and submit them. If possible, have the employer and doctor return their completed portions of the form to you so you can file them in one package and track it to make sure it is received.
FOUR MONTHS AFTER LAST DAY WORKED
File for Social Security Disability Benefits.
AT TIME THAT EMPLOYMENT IS TERMINATED
Confirm COBRA Notice and/or when COBRA notice will be sent.
File for Life Insurance Disability Waiver of Premium
Request disbursement of retirement fund if needed. Some people may prefer to postpone this since the fund continues to earn interest. Also, an award of Social Security disability benefits is generally considered to be sufficient proof to the plan administrator and IRS that you are exempt from any early withdrawal penalties or reduced vesting.
Making a plan of the steps you need to follow to transition from work to disability will make the whole process easier. It may also help with the decision of just when you should leave.
Confused about applying for disability? Click here
[Jacques Chambers, CLU, and his company, Chambers Benefits Consulting, have over 35 years of experience in health, life and disability insurance and Social Security disability benefits. For the past twelve years, he has been assisting people with their rights, problems, and other issues concerning benefits and disability. He can be reached at or through his website at: http://www.helpwithbenefits.com.]
Copyright, (February, 2005) AttorneyMind / AttorneyMind hcvadvocate.org. All Rights Reserved. Reprint is granted and encouraged with credit to the AttorneyMind
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