When Should You Apply for Social Security Disability or SSI?

Deciding when to apply for Social Security disability benefits can make a big difference for your claim.

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Social Security disability and SSI cases can drag on for a long time. In fact, it's not uncommon for an initial application to exceed the 90-120 days commonly estimated by the Social Security Administration (SSA). It can take as long as six months to get a decision on your initial application, especially if the SSA needs you to see a doctor or if it's 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, applicants 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.

How Soon Should I Apply for Disability?

If you believe you're 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're eligible. Most applicants will be eligible to file a disability application the day after they stop working or the day after their earnings drop below $1,350 per month in 2022 (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 qualifies under the terminal illness program).

If you can't work, there's 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 new evidence about how your condition has deteriorated at that point. This makes a lot of sense for people who have medical conditions that are expected to get worse over time; the average wait time for a hearing is over a year in many states, so consider applying now if you expect your illness to worsen.

Is There Any Reason to Wait to File for Disability?

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 can cost you back payments later. Here's why. If you're initially denied disability benefits but you win your appeal months or years later, or if you file a second claim and win, you may be able to get benefits back to your original filing date. Disability lawyers are often able to help you get disability benefits going back months or years. If you wait six months or a year after you stop working, you could lose benefits.

For more help on 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).

What if I Can't File for Disability Right Now?

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 intend to file becomes your effective application date for several purposes.

Also, 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 getting a protective filing date for Social Security.

What You Should Know Before You Apply for Disability

It can take Social Security a long time to make a decision on your claim, but you can help speed up the process by making sure you fill out the initial application correctly the first time. For more information, see our article on 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 may have. It's very common for Social Security to ask for more details about your work history, medical conditions, and where you're receiving medical care.

Social Security will send you many forms, including a release of authorization for Social Security to collect your medical records. Medical records are the evidence that Social Security uses to determine if you meet the rules to be 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 make sure Social Security gets all of the information the agency needs to make a decision on your claim. For more information, you may find the following articles helpful:

Updated January 31, 2022

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