When you file for Social Security Disability, you must be insured. This means you have to have paid into the Social Security system for a certain number of years. However, if you stop working, Social Security does not give you an indefinite time to file for disability. For a fully employed person who stops working due to a disability, Social Security only gives one five years to prove disability.
The Five-Year Window
The five-year period means if you are no longer paying into the Social Security system because you've stopped working, you must become disabled prior to the expiration of five years in order to be eligible for Social Security Disability. If your disability occurs after the expiration of the five-year period, it would be too late to obtain disability benefits. For more information, see our article on the date last insured (DLI) for Social Security.
Potential Problems for a Disability Case
If your last insured date has already expired when you apply for Social Security Disability, this can present an insurmountable problem in your case. For example, if you apply in 2011 and your last insured date expired in 2009, you would have to prove you were disabled in 2009 in order to be eligible for benefits. Proving disability before the last insured date can be most difficult. Often, it requires one to ask a doctor to make a retroactive analysis of your medical records and then give a retroactive opinion about the person’s disability status before the doctor had even examined the patient. Many judges reject these type of opinions.
File for Social Security Disability Early
The moral of the story is if your disability takes you out of work, you should file immediately for disability. This not only prevents potential issues with the last insured date, but also makes sense because you can get benefit payments sooner. Social Security Disability cases often drag on for many months or even more than a year, so it's best to file as soon as you've become disabled and unable to work.
If you're not quite ready to file, send Social Security a short note saying that you intend to file. This gives you a protective filing date for six months, which can can help you apply for disability before your last insuraed date if it's coming up. For more information, see our article on protective filing dates.
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