It is hard to predict exactly how long it will take the Social Security Administration (SSA) to decide your disability case. This is, in part, because there is no deadline the SSA is required to follow. Decision times also depend on the following factors:
- whether you are at the initial application stage or have appealed
- what state you live in
- how quickly you or your doctors provide the necessary medical records
- whether your case is pulled for a quality review, and
- whether your case can be expedited.
The Application Process
Decision times vary at each stage of the application process.
It takes Disability Determination Services (DDS), the state agency that makes the initial disability determination, about three to four months to decide an initial application, from the application date.
The wait time for a reconsideration of your initial denial (the first step of appeal) is about three to four months from the date you filed your request.
In some states, denials at the initial application level are appealed directly to the hearing level. This reduces overall wait times (to a final decision) by about four months. The states that have eliminated the reconsideration step are New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Colorado, Louisiana, Alaska, Alabama, New Hampshire, Michigan, and some sections of Los Angeles County.
The total decision time for cases at the hearing level includes the time from when a hearing is requested to when the administrative law judge (ALJ) issues an opinion. Total decision times currently range from seven months (Honolulu, HI) to 22 months (Fort Myers, FL). You can review the total disposition times for the hearing offices nearest you on the SSA’s Average Wait Time Until Hearing page.
If the ALJ denies your claim, you have the option to appeal the decision to the Appeals Council (AC). If the AC decides to review your claim (it has the option not to), it can take up to a year to receive the AC's decision. The length of time it takes the AC to reach a decision depends on:
- how many decision-makers are available
- the size of the caseload
- how much evidence you have in your case, and
- how complex your case is.
If the Appeals Council denies your request for review or determines that the ALJ’s decision was correct, you can appeal the decision to federal district court. The length of time it takes the federal district court to decide an appeal is about eight months from the date it was filed. You can look up the wait times for your specific state on the federal district courts website.
Remember that these are estimated wait times. It can take the SSA more, or less, time to decide your claim.
Quality Assurance Reviews
You will be notified by mail if your case is pulled for a quality assurance review. The purpose of these random reviews is to make sure that DDS employees, who work for the state and not for the SSA, are making decisions that follow the SSA’s guidelines. You will have to wait longer for a decision about your claim if it is selected for review.
Disability applicants often don’t provide enough supportive evidence about their disability when they first apply for benefits. Submitting evidence is important because DDS uses the medical records in your file to decide whether you are disabled. To increase your chances of being approved earlier in the process, you must provide the SSA with as much information about your condition as possible. Examples of medical evidence include: hospital records, lab results, pharmacy records, and your doctors’ reports.
The SSA will expedite (speed up) the approval process in some critical cases. Here are examples of when a case can be expedited:
- the applicant suffers from a terminal illness
- the applicant’s condition qualifies for a “compassionate allowance”
- the applicant served in the military on or after October 1, 2001
- the applicant is in dire need of assistance, or
- the applicant is a threat to personal or public safety.
The SSA refers to claims based on terminal illness as “TERI” cases. If it has been determined that your condition is terminal, you (or a family member) must notify the SSA immediately, and your case will be expedited. For more information, see Nolo's article on TERI claims.
A compassionate allowance (CAL) condition is one that the SSA has concluded is serious enough to warrant a quick approval with minimal medical evidence. For instance, most types of metastatic cancer are on the list. You should advise the SSA immediately if you are diagnosed with a CAL condition. You can review the current list of compassionate allowances in Nolo's article on compassionate allowances.
You can have your case expedited if you served in the armed forces on or after October 2, 2001, as long as you were on duty when the disability began. Your medical condition does not need to be related to your military service.
You may be able to have your appeal hearing expedited if you don’t have access to food, shelter, or medical treatment. You must advise the SSA if you are in dire need of assistance in one of these areas. You must also provide evidence of your need. Examples of evidence include: eviction notices, copies of medical bills, evidence that water or power has been turned off, or statements from a homeless shelter that indicate you are no longer eligible for its services. Unfortunately, few dire need requests are approved.
Personal or Public Safety
If there is evidence that you are a threat to yourself (suicidal) or to the public (homicidal), the SSA may expedite your claim. Evidence from you, your family, the police, or treating doctors can be used to demonstrate that you are a threat to yourself or to others.
Will I Be Approved Faster if I Have an Attorney?
An attorney cannot make the SSA decide your claim faster, but an attorney can sometimes file a request for an off-the-record decision or an attorney adviser opinion. If the request is successful, you may be able to get a positive decision before having to go to a disability hearing. (For more on these additional ways to expedite benefits, see our article on speeding up your Social Security disability claim.)
In addition, statistics show that if you have an attorney, you are more likely to be approved for benefits. If you want to speak to an experienced disability attorney about your claim, you can arrange a free consultation with a disability lawyer here.