You don't have to be disabled for any length of time before you apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or SSI disability benefits. You are eligible for SSD or SSI benefits as soon as you stop being able to do substantial work. In most cases, Social Security defines substantial work as making $1,070 per month (but the rules are different for self-employed and blind persons; see our article on substantially gainful work for details).
When you can apply. Contrary to popular belief, there is no requirement that you be off work for six months or a year before you can apply for or collect disability benefits. You can apply for disability as soon as you quit work or are let go because of your medical condition -- or when you realize you are disabled and can't go back to work. That said, you must be expected to not be able to work for at least one year (or have an illness that is likely to result in your death) to qualify for Social Security or SSI disability (this is called the durational requirement).
Durational requirement. How does Social Security know if you'll be unable to work for at least one year? If you have an abrupt accident or illness that suddenly and obviously makes it impossible for you to work, Social Security will estimate how long your inability to work will last. If your doctor's prognosis is that your illness or impairment will keep you from working for at least one year, and Social Security agrees, the agency can grant you disability benefits right away. For injuries that have caused obvious permanent disability, like an amputation of both hands, Social Security will make a decision on your case right away, but if your prognosis is not clear, Social Security may wait a few months to see if your condition improves (for example, after a stroke or heart attack). Social Security often presumes that a disabling impairment that has not improved within three months will last a year.
How working affects the disability decision. If you have a less clear cut condition, like back pain, depression, or fibromyalgia, Social Security will have to determine both whether you are unable to work and whether you won't be able to work for at least a year. If you work up until the time you apply for disability, this can throw doubt on your claim that you can't work. You'll need to provide evidence that, even though you were working when you applied for disability, you weren't succeeding. In your application for disability (the Adult Disability Report), Social Security asks you questions about your last job. If your medical condition caused you to be absent or reduce your hours, or if your employer had to give you special help for you to complete your job despite your impairment, make sure you include this.
How working affects your backpay. Working up until you apply for disability will also affect your disability onset date (the date Social Security says your inability to work began). Unless you can show that your recent work was an unsuccessful work attempt (for example, you tried to work but had to quit because of the pain), your disability onset date won't be until after you stop doing substantial gainful work. For more information, see our article on the unsuccessful work attempt rules. For these reasons, some disability lawyers actually recommend you wait to apply for disability for a few months after you stop working. But if you have a serious disability and can't work, you should really apply for disability as soon as you can, since getting disability will take anywhere from three months to 18 months, or even more.
SSDI waiting period. The SSDI program does have a five-month waiting period, starting from the established onset date of disability, during which you won't receive benefits. For more information, see our article on the five-month waiting period.