When Should You Apply for Social Security Disability or SSI?

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Question

I've just gotten to the point to where I can no longer work because of pain. Should I apply for disability benefits right away?

Answer

Social Security disability and SSI cases can drag on for a long time. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for an initial application to exceed the 90-120 days commonly "estimated" by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and take as long as six to eight months to complete. Of course, if an initial claim for disability benefits is denied (and about 70% of initial claims are), going through the appeals process will become necessary. (Learn more about Denials and Appeals.)

Given these conditions, claimants for Social Security disability or SSI benefits often find themselves in great financial distress prior to the time of a disability hearing. So when should you apply for Social Security disability or SSI? If you believe you are disabled and unable to work, and also believe you may qualify for disability benefits, you should probably minimize the waiting time by filing a Social Security disability or SSI application as soon as you are eligible.

Most claimants will be eligible to file a disability application the day after they stop working or the day after their earnings drop below $1,070 per month (the SGA level), assuming your condition is expected to last at least one year. If your initial application is denied, and your medical condition worsens by the time of your reconsideration or hearing, you'll be able to submit the new evidence of your condition then, so there is no reason to wait until your condition worsens to get the process started. 

However, for borderline cases -- that is, disability claims without obvious, clear-cut long-term impairment -- some disability attorneys suggest you wait until you haven't worked for six months before you apply for benefits.

Updated by: , J.D.

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