Social Security disability and SSI cases can drag on for a long time. In fact, it's not uncommon for an initial application to take more than the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) estimate of 90-120 days. It can take as long as six months to get a decision on your initial disability application, especially if Social Security needs you to see a doctor or if the SSA is waiting to see if you recover from surgery or other treatment.
And if your initial claim for disability benefits is denied (about 65% of initial claims are), you'll have to go through the lengthy appeals process.
Given these conditions, it's not surprising applicants for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits often find themselves in great financial distress while they're waiting for an initial decision or a disability hearing.
If you're like most disability applicants, you probably need your benefits to start as soon as possible. But if you apply before you meet Social Security's requirements, your claim will be denied. Yet if you wait too long, you could lose benefits.
If you believe you're disabled and unable to work, and won't be able to work for a long time, you should probably minimize the waiting time by filing your SSDI or SSI application as soon as you're eligible. Generally, that should be the day after you stop working.
But if you can't work enough to earn a full-time income, you might be able to apply for disability before you quit working altogther—once your earnings drop below $1,470 per month in 2023 (Social Security considers earnings above this amount to be a substantial amount of work).
Of course, Social Security only awards benefits to those whose condition is expected to last at least one year (or who qualify under the terminal illness program). But if you can't work, there's usually no reason to wait until your condition gets extreme to start the application process.
If your initial application is denied and your medical condition worsens by your appeal hearing, you can submit new evidence about how your condition has deteriorated. Since the average wait time for a hearing is over a year in many states, it usually makes sense to file for disability sooner than later—especially if your medical condition is expected to get worse over time.
As the name suggests, Social Security disability insurance, or SSDI, is essentially disability insurance for workers who've paid into the system (via FICA or self-employment taxes). Since you stop paying those taxes when you stop working, eventually, your SSDI coverage will expire—meaning you won't be eligible to receive any SSDI benefits if you haven't applied.
Even if you file for SSDI before your coverage expires, waiting to apply for disability could cause you to lose some of the benefits you're legally entitled to. Social Security pays retroactive benefits going back to when you first became disabled, called your onset date. (Learn more about how to choose the right onset date.)
But you can only get SSDI retroactive benefits for up to 12 months before the date you filed your application. So, if you wait more than a year after you stop working to file for disability, you'll lose benefits for every month you delay.
For example, let's say you had to stop working after suffering a stroke in 2019. If you wait to apply for SSDI until 2023, Social Security will only pay retroactive benefits back to 2022, and you'd lose all the disability benefits you could have collected for 2019, 2020, and 2021.
There's no deadline for filing for SSI disability—the Social Security disability program is designed to help people with low incomes and few assets. Since SSI isn't based on your work record or the amount of taxes you've paid, your coverage can't expire. But waiting to file for SSI disability can still cause you to lose some benefits (see below).
Some disability attorneys suggest you wait until you haven't worked for six months before you apply for benefits—unless you have an obvious, clear-cut long-term impairment. But waiting to apply for SSI or SSDI can affect how much back pay you get.
If you're initially denied disability benefits but win your appeal months or years later, you'll likely get Social Security back pay—benefits dating back to your original filing date. Disability lawyers can often help you get disability benefits going back months or even years.
Social Security pays back pay based on the date you filed for disability. So, if you wait six months or a year after you stop working to apply for SSI or SSDI, you could lose some benefits. But, how long you should wait to apply depends on your specific medical condition.
For more help figuring out when to apply, read our article on how long you have to be disabled before you apply (it explains Social Security's duration requirement and the SSDI waiting period).
If you plan to file for disability soon but can't do it right away, you might want to get a "protective filing date." You establish a protective filing date when you let Social Security know you plan to file a disability application in the next few weeks or months. Then, when you do file your application, the date that you told Social Security you intended to file becomes your effective application date.
For instance, let's say you establish a protective filing date of April 1. Then you complete your application several weeks later, on June 1. Because of your protective filing date, Social Security will treat April 1 as your application date.
There are a few ways to establish a protective filing date. But one of the simplest is to start a disability application online—the day you do can act as your protective filing date even if you don't finish the application for several weeks. But you do have to complete your online application within a certain amount of time and tell Social Security that you want to obtain a protective filing date.
Learn more about how to get a protective filing date for Social Security.
It can take Social Security a long time to decide your claim, but you can help speed up the process by making sure you fill out the initial application correctly the first time. (Learn more about how to successfully complete the disability application.)
Once you apply, Social Security will contact you to gather more information about your claim, so be prepared to answer any questions that Social Security might have. It's very common for Social Security to ask for more details about the following:
Social Security will send you many forms, including a release of authorization for Social Security to collect your medical records. Your medical records are the evidence that Social Security uses to determine if you're medically eligible for disability, so it's crucial that you return these forms as soon as possible.
Hiring a disability advocate or attorney can help you with this process. An advocate or attorney can help you complete the application at the right time and ensure Social Security gets all the information the agency needs to decide on your claim.
Updated April 21, 2023