Important: We updated this article in February 2023 so all information below is both current and accurate. Today, we’re answering a question from reader Tina about qualifying for disability benefits. She says it’s getting and harder and harder to go to work these days, but she has bills to pay. Tina asks: “If I’m applying for disability, do I have to quit my job?” Keep reading to learn the answer.
Related: 5 State Disability Programs That Pay Temporary Benefits
“Should I Quit My Job if I’m Applying for Disability?”
We’ll walk you through the qualifying steps the government uses to determine your eligibility for benefits below. Whether or not your health problems are bad enough to call you disabled is pretty far down their list!
Step 1: Do You Have Sufficient, Recent Work History and Social Security Work Credits?
The fact that you’re working now (even though it’s increasingly difficult) makes you more likely to qualify for SSDI benefits. SSDI is Social Security Disability Insurance, and your FICA taxes from every paycheck cover your premiums each month. When applying for SSDI, the government checks your eligibility requirements in a certain order. The first thing the Social Security Administration looks for is, do you have SSDI coverage? In other words, did you work full-time for 5 in the last 10 years in jobs while paying FICA (or Social Security) payroll taxes? You’ll probably say “yes,” which puts you one step closer to getting benefits.
Next question: Do you have enough Social Security work credits? Generally, you need to earn 40 work credits to qualify (20 within the last 10 years). However, that can vary depending on your age and income history. (Learn more in the SSA’s Social Security work credits brochure.)
Step 2: Are You Still Engaging In “Substantial Gainful Activity” When You Apply?
Once you’ve passed the first two eligibility requirements, we get to number three: Can you still work? The SSA says: “If you are working in 2023 and your earnings average more than $1,470 a month, you generally cannot be considered disabled.” That $1,470/month is what the SSA calls “substantial gainful activity” (i.e., the job wages you earn). Maybe you only work part-time or earn less than that now. But if you’re working when you apply, the SSA may decide you’re not disabled. Or you should be able to get another decent paying job with your current health problems.
So, to answer your question: “Do I need to quit my job before applying for disability?” In our opinion, yes, you need to quit your job first. In most cases, they’ll then schedule a DDS medical exam. That exam determines whether your health problems specifically forced you to stop working. If their doctor says “yes, you cannot work for health reasons,” then you meet the SSA’s medical disability requirements.
“I’m Scared to Quit My Job – I Have Bills To Pay!”
Just so you know, many people are in your same situation. They want to quit working, but have no way to pay their bills. To qualify for SSDI, you must prove your health problems force you to stop working for at least 12 months. If you can work part-time or light duty, that can hurt your approval chances. In fact, it says so directly on the SSA’s website. “If you are not working, we will send your application to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office that will make the decision about your medical condition.” In other words, if you’re working, why should they move onto the medical screening step of your claim review? People who aren’t working will skip ahead of you in line, and that line is very, very long right now. In 2022, the SSA approved a little more than 65,000 disability claims every month, on average.
Some people wait up to two years for the SSA to finish reviewing their claims. It sounds like you can’t go very long with no income, but quitting your job is key for faster approval.
“How Long Does Approval Take After I Quit My Job?”
Frankly, here are three things that greatly improve your approval chances:
- Consult an experienced local attorney for free before you apply. We can match you with someone today for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation based on your ZIP code. This person can review your info and answer all your claim questions by phone. You’ll get guidance that matters to your specific case, like how long people in your area typically wait for approval.
- After your consultation, quit your job as soon as you can reasonably do so. You may wish to delay this step until you can put aside some extra money. You’ll need to go about five months without income before the SSA can pay you any SSDI benefits. (This mandatory five-month waiting period is required by federal law.)
- Lastly, gather convincing medical evidence to support your claim and submit it. Unless you have a terminal illness DDS can independently confirm, your claim review takes at least 3-5 months, on average. If the SSA pulls your medical records after you file, expect to wait a year (or longer).
Filing your application with correct, complete info and convincing medical evidence is key for rapid claim review and approval.
How to Nearly Triple Your Chances for Disability Approval
People don’t like hearing this, but the disability application process is confusing and difficult. Government forms are hard to understand and fill out for a reason. Anything they can do to discourage people from applying lets them keep more taxpayer money. Having a lawyer file your disability application makes you almost 3x more likely to qualify on your first try.
In recent years, about 1 in 5 first-time applicants won benefits on their first try. Out of all applicants, just 32% ever receive benefits. In fact most people must appeal 2-3 times before they can draw benefits. You might think you don’t need a lawyer if your doctor says you’re disabled. However, lawyers understand the process well. They know the government rejects some people’s claims for surprising reasons, such as bad handwriting. A lawyer can request (and even pay for) complete medical records, check your claim status and communicate with the SSA on your behalf.
Denied the first time? An attorney can file your appeal and correct any paperwork mistakes. You won’t have to appear or testify in court because your attorney does that for you. Think you can’t afford it? All disability attorneys work on contingency. That means you pay nothing for legal assistance unless your case wins. You owe your lawyer $0 if you don’t win benefits. And if you win, then you’ll only pay one small fee.
Related: How to Appeal After Your Social Security Disability Denial
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.