Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments begin after you serve a five-month waiting period, which generally starts with the date you became disabled. Your first benefit payment will be for the sixth full month after that date.
For example, if Social Security decides that your disability began Jan. 15, your initial payment will be for July and you'll get it in August, as Social Security pays benefits in the month after the month for which they're due.
The important thing to remember is that the date your disability began, what Social Security calls the onset date, is not the same as the date your claim for SSDI was approved, or when you applied. Your onset date — essentially, the day you became unable to work due to your medical condition — could be days, weeks or even months before you filed for benefits.
In practice, this means that if your application is approved, you might not have to wait that long for your benefits. In March 2021, Social Security's average processing time for an SSDI application was 166 days, or roughly five and a half months. Even if you filed your claim on the day you became disabled, the waiting period could be over by the time the claim is approved.
Let's say you applied for SSDI in November 2020 due to chronic, worsening back pain. In April 2021, Social Security granted your claim, determining from its review of medical and other evidence that Oct. 15 is when your condition became severe enough to stop you from working. Your first payment would be for April, and you'd get it in May.
What if Social Security concludes that you became disabled even earlier — say, in July 2020? You would have theoretically been entitled to benefits in January 2021, but you could not have gotten them because your application wasn't approved until April. In this case, Social Security can pay retroactive benefits for the three months between the end of your waiting period and when it approved your claim.
In fact, Social Security can pay retroactive SSDI for up to 12 months prior to the date you filed your application, if it determines that you were qualified to receive benefits well before you applied.
Why a waiting period?
The five-month pause has been part of SSDI since the program began in the mid-1950s. The idea is to make sure applicants genuinely have a lasting disability, not a short-term illness or injury from which they might recover quickly, and to deter those who can work from applying. Congressional research has found that eliminating it would cost Social Security billions of dollars per year.
There are some exceptions to the waiting period. For example, a federal law passed in 2020 eliminated the wait if you are disabled due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). If Social Security determines that your disability from ALS began in November, you would be entitled to a benefit for December.
You may also be able to skip the waiting period if you need to go back on disability after being off benefits for up to five years. If the reason your SSDI stopped is that you returned to work and exceeded Social Security's earnings limit for disabled beneficiaries, you can ask for your benefits to be resumed right away through a process called expedited reinstatement. You can receive provisional benefits for up to six months while Social Security decides if you are entitled to SSDI again.
Keep in mind
- The onset date is up to Social Security. You will be asked in your SSDI application when you believe you became disabled; that's called the "alleged onset date." Social Security may accept your date, or choose another, depending on the evidence in your case. This final selection, the "established onset date," determines the starting point for the waiting period.
- The 12-month maximum for retroactive benefits applies when you are successful on your initial application for SSDI. If you are rejected then but later win on appeal — a process that can take well over a year — Social Security can pay back benefits based on when you first applied, even if that's more than 12 months.
Published April 30, 2021