When you apply for disability benefits, one of the first questions that Social Security will ask you is “when did you become disabled?” or “what onset date do you want to use?” Social Security calls this date your alleged onset date and it will be used throughout the course of your disability claim.
Interestingly, many of my clients tell me that this question caught them off guard – what date should they choose? Sometimes, as we approach a hearing date I may discover that we have to change, or amend, the onset date. But, as you will see, it is much better to choose the right onset date early on as opposed to changing it later.
What is the “Best” Onset Date for Your Disability Claim?
Social Security will find that you are disabled if the symptoms arising from your medical problems make it impossible for you to work. Thus, your onset date ought to be the day when you could no longer perform the duties of any type of work even a simple, entry-level job.
If you were terminated for poor attendance or poor performance, or if you quit your job because you were about to be fired, the date after your last day of work can be an appropriate onset date. For example, I recently represented a client who was missing a day or more each week because of back pain and medication side effects. My client’s employer called him in for a review and gave him the option of resigning or being fired. My client’s last day of work was April 12, so we used April 13 as his onset date.
In other situations, your last day of work may not be a good onset date. If you lost your job because of a layoff having nothing to do with your performance or attendance, we would likely want to choose an onset date that corresponds to some medical event that signaled a change in your capacity to work.
In rare cases, we can use an onset date prior to the date you stopped working. For example, I once represented a client who had worked for the same company for 15+ years. In February of his 16th year he began to experience symptoms arising from DVT (deep vein thrombosis) which required him to lie down frequently, keep his legs extended and to avoid lifting more than 5 lbs. Because of his long tenure at his job, my client’s co-workers stepped up to help him get through the day and keep his job. His supervisor made special accommodations and did looked the other way when my client need to rest. As of that February, my client continued to get paid as a regular employee but he was performing a “make work” job at less than a full time level until he finally had to resign in May of that year.
The judge in this case agreed to an onset date of March 1 on the grounds that as of March 1, my client was unable to perform competitive work at any job. This earlier onset date resulted in three extra months of past due benefits totaling almost $3,000.
Talk to Your Lawyer About Your Onset Date
I discuss my client’s onset date as soon as I open a new file. My experience has been that if we are going to try to move the onset date back in time to an earlier date, we need to do that as soon as possible. Remember that at the initial and reconsideration appeal levels, Social Security takes on the responsibility of requesting medical information. The request letters they send out to your doctors will reference a specific date, i.e., “please send us medical records from August 17, 2014 to the present.”
If we later want to argue that your onset date was May 3, 2014, medical records from May through August may not be in the file and we will have to scramble to get them.
If your hearing judge does not have records dating back to the onset date and earlier, then your chances at convincing him to move the onset date back are small.
Many times the onset date used in a claim seems to be somewhat arbitrary. I’ll ask my client “why did you choose September 3, 2013 as your onset date” and the answer will be something like “that’s what the lady from Social Security suggested.” Remember that as a general rule, the earlier your onset date, the bigger your past due payment check will be. This is just one reason to spend a little time thinking about your onset date.
Your Judge Can Change the Onset Date
Regardless of the date you choose as an onset date, the Social Security adjudicator or the Social Security judge has the power to change it. At the administrative level, the adjudicator can approve your case but change the onset date. This leaves you with a predicament – you can appeal the approval and ask for an earlier onset date, but you will be giving up the approval and the immediate commencement of benefits in the hope that a judge will approve your case and tha the judge will approve the earlier onset. If you appeal a favorable decision you may end up with nothing.
If you do end up at a hearing the judge can approve you but use an earlier onset for his approval. Often times the judge will ask you and your lawyer to voluntarily amend your onset date while at the hearing, or the judge could issue a partially favorable decision.
As you can see, there are implications to choosing your onset. My experience has been that it can be counterproductive to argue for an date that is not supported by the medical record.
I can also tell you that regardless of your work history, very few judges would consider approving a case using an onset point more than 2 or 3 years in the past. In other words, don’t expect the judge to find you disabled as of 1987 or 1995 – that’s probably not going to happen.
If you have questions about choosing a reasonable and defensible onset date, please reach out to me – I’d be happy to help – just write me using the contact form on this page.