Many disability applicants ("claimants") whose claims are initially denied end up pursuing those claims through multiple appeals. Because those appeals can take years, claimants usually receive sizeable backpay awards when they finally win their disability cases.
Depending on the type of disability benefit you're awarded, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will pay past-due benefits going back to either the date of your disability onset or the date of your initial application. If you've filed more than one application for disability benefits, you can sometimes get Social Security to pay benefits based on a date from a prior claim.
Most claimants who request reopening do so because they think they should have been awarded benefits based on an earlier application. After a prior application was denied, they might not have requested reconsideration or a disability hearing before the appeal deadline, so the initial denial of the old claim became final, and they had to start over by filing a new application.
But if a claimant successfully reopens an earlier claim, Social Security can give them more in disability backpay because the agency can base the disability onset date or application date on the prior claim. Keep in mind that Social Security only reopens claims in limited circumstances, however.
Social Security will reopen a prior disability claim only if it's related to the current disability claim. For example, if the initial claim was for a herniated disc and the second claim was for a herniated disc and spinal stenosis, Social Security might reopen the initial claim. The agency won't reopen a prior claim that's based on a disability that is unrelated to the current claim (such as an initial claim based on diabetes and a second claim based on depression).
Additionally, the onset date of your disability on your second claim must be within the timeframe covered by your first application (generally between 12 and 17 months of the initial application, depending on whether you're applying for SSI or SSDI). Finally, Social Security will generally only reopen a claim that was incorrectly decided the first time around.
Social Security doesn't require a particular form or process for claimants who want to reopen a prior disability claim. You'll need to file a new application for disability benefits and ask Social Security to reopen your old claim.
Under federal regulation 20 CFR §404.988, whether Social Security can reopen a prior claim depends on how old it is and why you're requesting reopening.
A prior SSDI or SSI claim that became final after a claims examiner or an administrative law judge made an initial determination can be reopened within 12 months of the date of the decision for any reason. After 12 months have passed, it's harder to reopen a claim.
SSDI claims can be reopened within four years, and SSI claims can be reopened within two years, if Social Security finds "good cause" to reopen the old claim. Good cause is defined as having new and material evidence about the claim, finding a clerical error in the way benefits were calculated, or when the written DDS decision shows error "on its face."
If the outcome of your prior claim has been final for more than four years, Social Security will reopen only for a few very specific and unusual reasons. For example, the agency can reopen at any time if the decision on your claim was the result of fraud or misrepresentation (such as someone knowingly made false statements or left out material information) or your earlier denial was based on a criminal conviction that was later overturned.
A claim denied by an administrative law judge can be reopened only by an ALJ or the Appeals Council, so you or your representative would need to raise the issue of reopening at a second ALJ hearing or with the Appeals Council. A claim denied by the Appeals Council can only be reopened by the Appeals Council.
If Social Security denies your request to reopen a prior claim, you can't appeal that decision. Because you only have one chance to get it right, it makes sense to hire a lawyer to get a prior claim reopened. A disability lawyer can make sure your new application is relevant to your past application, submit any new evidence, and persuade Social Security to find good cause to open an older claim.
Updated July 21, 2023