When Is the Right Time to Apply for Disability Benefits?

It’s a difficult point in your life when you realize that your medical conditions are severe enough that you may not be able to continue to work and support yourself.  But how do you know when it’s time to start making plans for the future you didn’t plan for and apply for SSI or SSDI?  If you wait too long, you may lose out on benefits.  But applying too early is counterproductive as well because you won’t have the evidence to meet the definition of disability.  In order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you need to have a medical condition that is expected to last twelve months or longer or result in death that results in an inability to work eight hours a day, five days a week. 

Serious Injury or Illness

Sometimes it’s very clear when you need to apply for benefits.  A car accident or other catastrophic event can change your life in an instant.  If this happens to you and it’s immediately clear that you are not going to be in any condition to go back to work for at least a year, go ahead and apply for benefits.  If you are diagnosed with a condition that will require treatment that will incapacitate you, such as advanced cancer treated with chemotherapy and radiation, it may also be a good idea to apply for benefits sooner rather than later.

If You Continue to Work

Most people thinking of applying for disability are in the situation where they have a medical condition that has been going on for some time but they continue to work with the condition as long as possible. Over time, it becomes harder to go to work every day.  Absences pile up and your employer starts losing patience.  You know that you can’t keep going much longer and that you need to plan for a future where you cannot work.  You should not apply for SSI or SSDI while you’re still working full time.  Social Security allows you to work part time as long as you are not making above a certain amount, but it’s more difficult to be approved for benefits if you’re working in any capacity.  If you’re at the point where you cannot work any longer, you need to start planning and thinking about applying for benefits.

One problem that comes up often is that you cannot continue doing your current job, but could possibly do some other job.  If you’re over 55 years old, this is probably not an issue.  However, if you’re younger, you generally cannot receive benefits if there is some sort of full-time work you can do physically and mentally.  In this case, it is usually better to see if you can retrain for a new job.

Medical Evidence: Diagnosis

You cannot receive disability benefits without some sort of medical record documenting your condition.  It is best to have a concrete diagnosis before you apply for disability.  A general “I just don’t feel well” will not get you very far.  If you really are feeling so sick that you cannot keep working, you should be seeking medical treatment anyway because there may be a treatment that would allow you to keep working. 

Some conditions are much harder to diagnose than others.  Multiple sclerosis and lupus are two perfect examples.  You could have doctors arguing about whether or not you have MS for years.  In those cases, you still have medical records that document your symptoms as well as any testing and treatments that have been tried.  Once you realize that you are not improving and cannot see going back to work in the next several months, even without a diagnosis, it is a good idea to apply for benefits.

Ask Your Doctor

When in doubt, ask your doctor.  You will need your doctor’s support for disability and if there is harmful information in your medical records, such as allegations of exaggerating medical complaints, it’s best to know before you apply.  If your doctor says that he doesn’t believe you should be applying for disability, reconsider whether or not you really could perform some type of employment.  If you genuinely feel that you cannot work, you should try to find another doctor.  Regardless of whether or not you are ever approved for disability, it is always best to have a doctor that you can talk to about your symptoms freely.

When in Doubt, Apply Sooner Rather Than Later

If you wait too long before you apply for SSI or SSDI, you may lose out on benefits.  SSI benefits are paid from the date you apply forward.  SSDI benefits start either five months after the date you stopped working or a year before the date you filed, whichever is later.  If you believe you will not be returning to work for at least a year, go ahead and apply for benefits sooner rather than later. 

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