Important: We updated this article in July 2023 to make sure all info below is both current and correct. Everyone who applies for disability benefits waits for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to review their claim. But you may not know there’s a required five-month waiting period before the SSA makes your first disability payment. Will this legal rule affect your own application — and are there any exceptions? We’ll explain everything you need to know below.
When Does This Required Social Security Disability Waiting Period Start?
According to the Social Security Handbook, the waiting period lasts five full calendar months in a row. For most people, the clock starts ticking the day you file your benefits application with the SSA. The agency calls this day the “Alleged Onset Date” (AOD), because that’s the date you applied for disability benefits. They assume that’s when you became too disabled to work, unless you prove your condition started long before that. (Most people are able to do this, by the way.)
Anyone approved for SSDI may also qualify for up to 12 months of back pay in a single payment. Those 12 months are as far back as the SSA’s willing to pay you past-due SSDI benefits.
The good news is, five months to the day after you apply for disability, your SSDI waiting period ends. Since the SSA takes 3-5 months to review applications, on average, it doesn’t materially affect most people. For those applicants, the SSDI waiting period happens while their claim’s still under review.
However, this legally required SSDI waiting period doesn’t affect everyone the same way. We’ll explain two situations below where the SSDI waiting period won’t affect you.
Exception #1: You Got Approved for Disability In the Last 5 Years, But Your Payments Stopped
This exception to the required SSDI waiting period only applies to people who got disability benefits before, then stopped. For example: You had spinal surgery three years ago. You couldn’t work for the 15 months between when your doctor diagnosed the problem and making a full recovery. But once your back fully healed, you started working again (so the SSA stopped paying you monthly benefits).
Now, three full years later, your doctor diagnoses you with a brain tumor. You have to stop working right away and start medical treatment. So, you apply for SSDI a second time in less than five years. The SSA’s rules around the SSDI waiting period don’t apply to your second claim, since you’re in the five-year timeframe. If the SSA approves your claim this time, you’ll get your first payment in 30 days or less!
Exception #2: You Only Apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Not Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Benefits
People may not notice or realize there are two check boxes on disability claim forms when they apply. In fact, the SSA manages two different programs that pay monthly disability. When you apply for benefits, the SSA checks your eligibility for both. If approved, you’ll either get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. (Very few people receive both; you usually get benefits from one program or the other each month.)
As you might guess, the five-month SSDI waiting period doesn’t affect people awarded SSI. Approved applicants usually get their first SSI payment within 30 days. But if you’re thinking about doing this just to get paid faster, stop and read this first:
- SSI payments are significantly lower than SSDI benefits, on average. In 2023, the max SSI monthly payment per person is $914. Compare that to SSDI benefits, which max out at $3,627.
- Unlike SSDI, you must have almost no financial assets and very low income to qualify for SSI. Medical eligibility requirements for both programs are identical: Your condition must stop you from working at least 12 months. If that applies to you, you’ll qualify for either SSI or SSDI. But specifically for SSI, you cannot own more than $2,000 in assets (cars, jewelry, bank account balances, etc.). You also can’t make more than $1,470 monthly in passive income, which includes things like child support and alimony payments. Live with a partner, spouse, family member, or roommate? That person’s income counts towards your monthly income limit when you apply for SSI.
If you’re sure you will qualify for SSI but not SSDI, then go ahead and check that box! Otherwise, check both boxes when you apply. If the SSA approves you for SSI only, the SSDI waiting period won’t apply to you, regardless.
Other Common SSDI Waiting Period FAQs
Have another question about the SSA’s five-month SSDI waiting period? Check to see if we answered it below:
1. I got my claim approved faster under the Compassionate Allowances (CAL) program. Will the SSDI waiting period affect my first check?
Yes — unless you can prove your condition started at least five months before you applied for benefits. To qualify for the max lump-sum back payment, you must prove your condition started 17 months earlier.
2. Should I wait another 5 months to file for benefits so I can skip the wait?
No, because the SSA could take longer than five months to review your claim. Or, you may get denied the first time you apply and need to appeal. Either way, don’t try to hold out an extra five months before filing your claim. There’s no guarantee you’ll get benefits right away, or even at all. And if the SSA approves you quickly, you can request an emergency check.
3. If I’m approved, with the SSA pay me benefits for the five-month waiting period when I had to go without any income?
Unfortunately, no. You can’t get paid benefits for the five-month waiting period under any circumstances. Only people who prove their condition started 17 months before they applied qualify for the maximum backpay amount.
4. Why does the SSA make people suffer through a waiting period before making any payments?
Believe it or not, until 1973, the SSDI waiting period was actually six months, not five! The SSA mostly enforces this rule to discourage people with short-term health issues from filing claims.
Social Security disability benefits only apply to people who’ve paid into the system through their payroll taxes. In addition, your health must force you to stop working for 12+ months to qualify for benefits. If your doctor says you’ll get better in less than a year, you won’t qualify for SSDI or SSI. The lone exception is certain terminal illnesses.
How to Get Free Expert Claim Help at Home
Applying for Social Security disability benefits is pretty confusing. If you need help, why not talk to an experienced Social Security attorney? You can get confidential answers that apply to your specific circumstances free of charge! All disability lawyers work on contingency, and they can’t charge you anything unless the SSA approves you first. In fact, having a lawyer file your disability claim nearly triples your chances for benefit approval.
That means you’ll pay nothing to get professional help today. Already denied benefits? A lawyer can review your claim for mistakes and fix them. Each year, nearly 2 in 5 first-time claimants get denied for basic paperwork errors. This is called a technical denial. An attorney can help you avoid those mistakes, or fight to get you benefits on appeal. Lawyers won’t take on your case unless they think you’ll win. And if you do win, you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee.
Want to speak with an expert about your claim for free? Click the button below to start your free online benefits quiz and see if you may qualify:
Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.