Social Security defines the word disability in terms of whether or not you have a permanent or long term medical problem that prevents you from performing substantial gainful activity. Specifically, your impairment must last at least 12 consecutive months, or be likely to last 12 consecutive months.
As a practical matter, I rarely see cases approved where my client has not been out of work for at least a full year. I have never seen a hearing scheduled before a year has passed.
What happens, however, if your medical condition keeps you out for a year, but a few months later, your condition improves and you are able to return to work. If your disability comes to an end due to medical improvement, you can still collect benefits for the 12+ months you were out – this is called a claim for a closed period of benefits.
In my experience, closed period claims are markedly easier to win. First, limiting your claim to a closed period reflects positively on your honesty and credibility. Judges respect your efforts to return to work and to cast of the label of disabled. Secondly, and perhaps more practically, Social Security judges are under a great deal of pressure to limit the drain on the Social Security disability trust fund’s dwindling resources. A closed period approval means that a claimant will not be collecting benefits for years to come in the future
I find that Social Security judges are much more likely to award a closed period to a younger (i.e., 49 years old or less) claimant than full, on-going disability for the same type of impairment.
Partially Favorable Decisions
Judges can also choose to award a closed period even if you have not specifically requested one. If the medical evidence in your case suggests that your condition has improved, the judge has the option to limit the approval to a certain number of months. Generally, the judge will propose such a change during the hearing and give you and your attorney the option to modify your request for benefits.
You do not have to accept the judge’s “offer” and your attorney can advise you if how particular judge presiding over your case will likely react to a rejection of the closed period offer.
Work Attempts and Closed Period Awards
If you are in the midst of an attempt to return to work at the time you appear for your hearing, you may find that the judge will encourage you to change your claim to a closed period claim. This can be tricky, especially if you are just starting the work attempt or if you sense that you are not going to be able to manage the demands of the job. My experience has been that you are going to have a difficult time convincing a judge to award on-going disability if you are working at the time of your hearing so it is always wise to consult with your lawyer before starting a work attempt so you can fully evaluate the direction of your case.
Payment Issues in Closed Period Cases
If you pursue a closed period claim, remember that the 5 full month waiting period still applies in an SSDI claim. So, if you are claimant a 12 month closed period you may only get paid for 6 months – a partial month and five full months makes up the waiting period. There is no five month waiting period for SSI, but you can only get paid SSI as of the date of your application.
You are also less likely to qualify for Medicare in a closed period case as you only get Medicare starting with the 25th month following the first date of your SSDI payment.
In my practice I have not seen many instances where a judge attempted to unreasonably bully a claimant to accept a closed period when his impairment had not improved. A closed period request can sometimes salvage a marginal case and it is a useful tool for an experienced claimant’s attorney.
Closed Period Cases – Case Studies
Closed period case study #1: 49 year old male who returned to part time work 13 months after a severe one-car accident that left him in a wheelchair and walker for 6 months