Claiming Social Security benefits can be daunting: it’s often a long process involving a mountain of documents, some of which aren’t easy to obtain. Getting a claim in order would be overwhelming, even if you weren’t struggling with a disability at the same time. But if you paid into Social Security throughout your working life, and if your ability to work is restricted due to your disability now, you deserve these benefits. A carefully prepared claim can help move the process forward.

One of the thorniest questions you’ll need to answer for your disability benefits claim is about the date your disability began. The Social Security Administration (SSA) needs this Man Looking at a Monthly Calendarinformation because it pays back benefits up to 12 months—after the first five months of disability. For example, if your disability began 17 months ago, you qualify for 12 months of back benefits. If it began 15 months ago, you qualify for nine months of back benefits.

What makes the question of the onset date—the date the disability began—so difficult is that some conditions develop slowly over time. A digestive disorder, for instance, may have started as an inconvenience and only gradually became truly debilitating. For many people, determining the date when discomfort or illness became a disability, as defined by the SSA’s disability criteria, requires the help of a professional with Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits experience.

Understanding the different types of disability recognized by the SSA and the factors involved in determining onset can help.

Disabling Disease and Traumatic Injury

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to categorize physical and mental disabilities for SSDI purposes:

  • Non-traumatic disabilities. These include diagnosed diseases and the exacerbation of chronic disease.
  • Disabilities resulting from trauma. These include accidents, physical violence, and mental abuse.

You will need different kinds of evidence to determine the onset date for non-traumatic and trauma-related disabilities. This evidence will go on the SSDI application and into the Disability Report prepared for your case by the SSA.

Non-Traumatic Disability

Most disabilities that qualify for SSDI benefits are non-traumatic in origin. The applicant—you or a loved one—will need to gather and present an abundance of medical and circumstantial evidence to satisfy SSDI requirements and support their claim. This evidence can include the following information:

Your Alleged Date of Disability

The day you became unable to work is your “Alleged Onset Date.”

Work History

The SSA uses specific employment information, including employer names, dates of employment, and earnings, to determine your benefits. To verify and complete its record, the SSA provides a secondary form which allows you to add missing information and correct any misinformation.

Did you phase out employment over a period of time, doing a less demanding job and trying to get by on significantly reduced income? There may have been a period before you stopped working altogether when you did light work for very little pay. The secondary SSA form is the place to explain these nuances, which the SSA will factor into its calculations when it determines your benefits.

Physician Statements and Medical Records

The SSA uses all relevant medical evidence to determine benefits eligibility. Statements by your treating physician and medical records describing the diagnosis and treatment of your disability are crucial evidence. Of course, if the disability results from a chronic condition or disease that has developed slowly, the medical records will not show a decisive onset date. The SSA will use the records as best as they can, along with other relevant information, to fix a point in time they believe is a reasonable estimate of the onset date.

Trauma-Related Disability

Determining the onset date of a disability resulting from trauma is typically more straightforward than is the case for disease-related disabilities. Factors the SSA will consider include:

  • Date of the injury, such as an automobile accident, physical assault, or traumatic event
  • First post-injury medical exam
  • Hospital emergency room record and date of hospital admission
  • Length of time unable to work immediately after the injury
  • Expectation of imminent death related to injury

Mental Illness

Serious mental illness can affect an employee’s on-the-job productivity, interactions with co-workers, and physical capability. Mental illness can originate in either a non-traumatic condition or a traumatic event.

Medical records for a person prevented from working due to mental illness may include hospital admissions and in-hospital treatment for the psychiatric condition. These records may also include reliable evidence of troubling behavior and symptoms of mental illness occurring prior to admission. In some cases, this evidence may support an earlier onset date.

Family members and former employers may also—with the applicant’s permission—provide testimony about aberrant or troubling past behavior. If the SSA deems this information sufficient and relevant, they may use it as a factor in determining the disability onset date.

Winning Benefits Is a Complex Process

Keefe Disability Law is a team of lawyers focused on helping clients win their rightful Social Security benefits. The SSDI process may seem simple at first, but the deeper you get into the details, the more questions you’re likely to have. A special report from Keefe Disability Law will help you understand the SSDI process. For a free social security disability claims consultation with a Keefe lawyer, call 508-283-5500 or complete our contact form.

Are You Looking for a Social Security Disability Attorney in Boston?

If you are looking to apply for Social Security disability, you need to speak with an experienced Social Security disability lawyer as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Natick Office directly at 508.283.5500 to schedule your free consultation.


John L. Keefe
Connect with me
Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer