When Should I File for Social Security Disability?

Question: I’ve been on and off work for a few months due to degenerative disc disease and arthritis. I’ve finally accepted that my back pain has become so disabling that I’m not going to be able to hold down a job. When should I file for Social Security disability benefits? Do I need to be off work for six months first?

Answer: There is no amount of time you have to be off work before you apply for disability benefits. Generally, once you have stopped working and you have a physical or mental impairment that prevents you from making at last $1,040 per month, you can be eligible for disability benefits. Because the disability application process can take a year or two, if you feel you are disabled, you should generally file for disability as soon as possible. There are only a few reasons to delay applying for Social Security disability: if you are still working, if you are collecting unemployment, or if you haven’t yet seen a doctor for your problems. Let’s look at these situations more closely.

Working. If you are working part-time, or have been working on and off, this may indicate to Social Security that you’re able to do work activities. To Social Security, if you can earn $1,040 per month, you are not disabled. If you’re not working now, you should be okay to apply for disability, using your last day of work as the onset date of your disability. (You might even be able to use an earlier onset date if your sporadic attempts at work weren’t working out because of your disability – see our article on unsuccessful work attempts for more information.)

Unemployment. If you’re receiving unemployment compensation, it might cause a problem with getting an approval for disability. To receive unemployment benefits, you generally have to certify you are “willing and able to work.” While there are circumstances where it’s okay to collect both benefits at once, it’s generally safer to not be collecting unemployment benefits when you apply. For some more guidance on this, see my June 2013 blog post on applying for disability benefits while collecting unemployment benefits.

Not under a doctor’s treatment. If you haven’t been seeing a doctor regularly for your impairment, this could be a problem. Social Security needs to see medical records such as doctor’s notes, lab test, x-rays, and so on. And Social Security is less likely to take your problems seriously if you haven’t seen a doctor for them. If you haven’t been able to afford to go to a doctor, Social Security may send you on a consultative exam with a Social Security doctor, but unless your impairment is clear-cut and very severe, you are unlikely to be approved for benefits on the basis of a consultative exam. It’s better to make an appointment to see a doctor (maybe try a free clinic) to develop evidence of your impairment.

If you plan to delay filing for disability for a month or two until you’ve either seen a doctor, run out of unemployment benefits, or stopped working, you can get what’s called a “protective filing date.” You simply let Social Security know that you’ll be filing a disability application in the next few months, either over the phone or by sending the agency a letter. The date that you let Social Security know that you intended to file becomes like your application date, as long as you file for disability within six months of that date. This can be important for calculating your disability backpay and a few other reasons. For more information, see our article on protective filing dates for Social Security.