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?
Social Security disability and SSI cases can drag on for a long time. In fact, it is not 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 months to get a decision. And if an initial claim for disability benefits is denied (about 70% of initial claims are), going through the lengthy appeals process will become necessary.
Given these conditions, claimants for Social Security disability or SSI benefits often find themselves in great financial distress while they are waiting for an initial decision or a disability hearing. So if you believe you are disabled and unable to work, 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 $1,260 per month (the SGA level as of 2020), assuming their condition is expected to last at least one year or qualifies under the Compassionate Allowance program or terminal illness program.
If you can't work, there is usually no reason to wait until your condition gets extreme to get the process started. If your initial application is denied and your medical condition worsens by the time of your appeal hearing, you'll be able to submit the new evidence about how your condition has deteriorated at that point. This is particularly true for medical conditions that are expected to get worse over time; the average wait time is two years for a hearing in many states, so it makes sense to apply now if you expect your illness to worsen.
For borderline cases, however—disability claims without an 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. But waiting can cost you back payments later; if you are denied disability benefits, and months or years later, you win your appeal or you file again and win benefits, you may be able to get benefits back to your original filing date, or your original disability date. Disability lawyers are often able to help you get disability benefits going back months or years.
If you plan on filing for disability soon but can't do it right away, you may want to get what's called a "protective filing date." Essentially, you let Social Security know that you'll be filing a disability application in the next few weeks or months. When you file, the date on which you alerted Social Security that you intended to file effectively becomes like your application date for several purposes. The day you start a disability application online can act as a 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. For more information, see our article on protective filing dates for Social Security.