What to Consider When Choosing Your Disability Onset Date

Choosing the right disability onset date can make or break your case for Social Security disability benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

One of the questions that the Social Security Administration (SSA) asks on the initial application for disability benefits is on what date you became disabled. Disability applicants often struggle to answer this question, especially when their impairments didn't all begin on one day but developed over time.

The choice of a disability onset date is an important one. Picking the wrong date can cost you thousands of dollars in back benefits, or even hurt your chances of being approved in the first place. Here are several things to think about when deciding on the right date to use. The date you claim your disability began is known as your alleged onset date.

Pick an Onset Date Supported by the Medical Evidence

Even if your impairments have been present since birth, or for many years, you should choose an onset date that is supported by your medical evidence and your work history. Tying your onset date to a significant medical event (like a hospital admission or your date of diagnosis) can be a good idea. But the most common route taken by disability applicants is to choose the date they last worked. That makes sense because you don't want to claim that you were disabled while you were still working a significant amount of time.

No matter what date you choose, make sure that your file contains medical evidence from near the time of your onset date that shows your medical conditions were disabling at that time.

Choosing an Alleged Onset Date for SSDI Claims

If you're insured for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) due to your work history, you'll need to decide on what date you became officially unable to work. There are two important points to keep in mind in SSDI cases:

  • SSDI benefits may be paid up to 12 months prior to the date of application.
  • There is a waiting period of five full months after your disability onset during which you are not entitled to payments.

The combined effect of these rules is that you usually shouldn't select a disability onset date that is more than 17 months prior to the date you apply for SSDI. There's nothing to be gained from trying to prove that your disability began ten years ago if Social Security won't make payments that far back.

Your date last insured (DLI) may also influence your choice of an onset date. Your date last insured is the day you last met the non-medical requirements for SSDI benefits. To be insured for SSDI, you need to have worked five of the last ten years. You can't be paid disability benefits if you became disabled after your disability insurance ran out.

Depending on your work history, your date last insured may be before or after your filing date. If the date you were last insured happened before you file, you must select a disability onset date that is on or before your DLI if you wish to remain eligible for SSDI.

Your Social Security field office will be able to supply you with your DLI if you are unsure.

Choosing an Alleged Onset Date for SSI-Only Cases

Individuals who haven't worked for five of the last ten years before becoming disabled will probably not qualify for SSDI because their date last insured will be non-existent or too far back (see above). But they may still financially qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), assuming their income and resources are below certain SSI income limits. (Read our article on other differences between SSDI and SSI.)

If you're applying for SSI only, you can state your disability onset date as the date of your application. Why? In SSI cases, Social Security pays retroactive benefits only to the month after the month of your application. So if you're applying for SSI in January 2024, you don't need to state that you became disabled in September 2018, since your payments would begin in February 2024 in either case. The less time you have to prove you're disabled, the better.

Those who contact Social Security before actually filing their applications sometimes have their filing date "protected," meaning they can use an application date prior to the day they filed for benefits. If you're given a protective filing date, you should use this as your disability onset date to maximize your back SSI benefits.

Other SSA Rules That Could Affect Your Onset Date

Keep the following rules in mind when choosing your disability onset date.

Incarceration. SSDI benefits won't be paid for any month during which a person is in jail or prison, and no SSI benefits are paid for months during which a person lives in a public institution, including a state psychiatric facility, halfway house, jail, or prison.

Citizen status. If you're a non-citizen who didn't reside in the United States immediately prior to filing for disability benefits, be aware that Social Security will not pay past (or current) SSDI benefits to non-citizens outside the U.S. for any month after the sixth consecutive calendar month.

Last day worked. Performing even part-time work after your alleged onset date can complicate your disability case. Unless Social Security decides that your work was an unsuccessful work attempt or below the substantial gainful activity threshold ($1,550 in 2024), you won't receive back benefits for any months you were employed. It's generally best to choose an onset date that's after the last day you did any significant amount of work, unless you're sure you can prove the work counted as an unsuccessful work attempt.

Unemployment benefits. While Social Security rules technically allow a person to receive unemployment and disability benefits at the same time (in some cases), most ALJs are reluctant to find individuals disabled while they received unemployment. In these cases, you can use the date of a hospital or doctor's visit as your onset date, or if nothing else, the date your unemployment benefits ended. For more information, see our article on collecting unemployment benefits when you claim disability.

You Can Change Your Onset Date

You're not stuck with the onset date you gave on your disability application. If your case is still at the initial level, you can notify your local Social Security field office in writing that you want to "amend" (change) your onset date.

If your case has been denied initially and has been transferred to an OHO hearing office to await a hearing date, send a written notice to that office with your name, your Social Security number, and your new disability onset date.

Discuss Your Onset Date With Your Legal Representative

An experienced disability attorney or advocate will understand the implications of changing your disability onset date, so be sure to discuss your onset date with your representative. A legal representative's fee in disability cases is generally 25% of the back benefits awarded by Social Security, up to a $7,200 cap, with no fee charged unless you win your case. This fee structure provides a built-in incentive for your representative to maximize your back benefits (by safely choosing an onset date that's as far back as possible) while helping you get approved.

Updated December 12, 2023

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