When Did I Become “Unable to Work” for Social Security Disability Purposes?

Question: I’m applying for Social Security disability benefits, but I’m not sure when to say I became “unable to work.” I had to quit working two years ago, but then recently tried to work again for a while and couldn’t. Which date do I use? The date I first stopped working or the date I stopped working the second time?

Answer: When the Social Security field rep or online disability application asks you when you became unable to work, it’s asking for your “alleged onset date” of disability. That means the date you’re claiming your disability began, which should generally be the last time you were able to do any significant amount of work. (Social Security considers a significant amount of work to be $1,040 per month or more (in 2013) — what it calls the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level.) If you work after the onset date you claim on your application, this can cause problems for your disability case, so you need to choose the date you became unable to work carefully.

In your case, however, you may be able to legitimately use the date you originally stopped working as your disability onset date. To do this, you have to get Social Security to ignore the work you did recently. Whether you can do this and use the date of the second time you stopped working depends on the facts of your situation, including how much you earned while you were working the second time and how long you worked for during that second work period.

If you were working below the SGA level during your second period of work, you can still be considered disabled. In other words, Social Security won’t count your second work period as work, and, on your disability application, you can put the date you originally stopped working.

If you were working above the SGA level during your second work period and you worked for more than six months, you can’t use the date you first stopped working. Social Security will not ignore your second attempt at work even if you quit because of your disability.

If you worked for fewer than six months when you went back to work (and you were working above the SGA level), the answer gets even more complicated. You might be able to ignore that work attempt and claim the date you first stopped working, but your second work period will have to qualify as an “unsuccessful work attempt.”

For a short period of work (under three months) to qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt, you must have quit because your medical condition made it impossible for you to do the work, or because your doctor restricted you from doing some of the tasks required, or because the employer took away special accommodations, such as special equipment or permission to work a flexible schedule, that were making it possible for you to work.

For a longer period of work (between three and six months) to qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt, your employer must have taken away special accommodations or conditions that were making it possible for you to work and you can prove that you couldn’t continue to perform the work regularly and satisfactorily (for instance, your work was sub par or you had to miss work frequently).

If your work period qualifies under one of the above tests, you can use the date you originally stopped working as your alleged onset date, but unless you’re sure Social Security will count the work as an unsuccessful work attempt, it’s usually best to choose an onset date that’s after the last day you did any significant amount of work. If Social Security disagrees with your alleged onset date, you’ll likely have to go to an appeal hearing to get the onset date you want (an on-the-record review won’t be available). And even then, the administrative law judge may try to move up your onset date so you aren’t paid back payments for any period you worked.

For more information, read our articles on choosing an onset date and unsuccessful work attempts. Or, consider hiring a disability lawyer to negotiate your onset date for you.