When a sudden injury or recent illness leaves you unable to work, will Social Security Disability (SSD) step in and provide you with an income?

Maybe. The agency’s rules about what constitutes a disability often come as an unpleasant shock to many people — especially those suffering from recent injuries or illnesses instead of long-term medical conditions.

Why the recent nature of an injury or illness matters

Under the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) rules, you can only qualify for disability payments if your injury or illness is severe enough to keep you from any substantial work activity for a year or longer or is expected to end in your death.

No matter how severe your condition, this rule can be problematic for people with recent injuries or illnesses. Unless your diagnosis is terminal, it may be difficult to tell if you will recover within a year’s time or not. There are simply too many unknowns in medical science.

Additionally, doctors are usually reluctant to make hard predictions about a patient’s recovery. Two similar patients can have similar injuries and similar treatment — but drastically different outcomes. One accident victim may recover fully from spinal trauma in just a few months while another ends up in a wheelchair.

This unpredictability makes it difficult to meet the agency’s requirements. You may clearly be disabled today, but can you reliably prove that you’ll still be disabled a year from now? Usually, the agency says you cannot.

What you can do to improve your chances of approval

You may want to delay your application for a little while.

The agency can “look back” up to a year before your filing date to set the start date for your disability claim. Plus, SSD is subject to a five-month waiting period during which no benefits are payable. Because of these factors, you have nothing to lose by delaying your application for at least a few months, possibly longer.

Delaying your application gives you time to build a medical record that may more reliably indicate the course of your condition. It may also be long enough that your doctor may feel comfortable weighing in on the amount of time it may take for you to recover — if ever.

In the long run, that can save you time because an approval on an initial claim is always quicker than going through the Social Security Disability appeals process.