Applying for Social Security disability benefits is a notoriously difficult and lengthy process. But just how long does it take, and what are your chances of receiving benefits? We took a survey of U.S. readers who recently went through the process of applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Here's some of what we learned.
Many of our readers told us they believed Social Security denies all applications at first. That's not true, but our survey did show that approval rates were low at this point in the process. In order to understand the results discussed below, it helps to know something about the application and decision-making process for Social Security disability. First, a disability examiner will look at your application to see if you meet the financial and/or work-history (or "technical") requirements for SSI or SSDI. If you do, the examiner will then evaluate your application based on your medical eligibility for disability benefits. (See our page on Social Security Disability and SSI to learn more the process and how to qualify for benefits.)
Less than a quarter (23%) or our readers were approved for benefits at the initial application stage. The remaining 77% were denied for either technical or medical reasons. Because many people don't meet the technical requirements, government statistics show a somewhat higher percentage of initial approvals based solely on medical eligibility (41% for SSDI applications filed in 2018; 37% for SSI applications).
Fortunately, an initial denial isn't necessarily the final word. If you've been turned down for a medical reason, you can appeal that decision by requesting a hearing. When you do that, our survey showed that you can significantly increase your chances of a successful outcome. Almost half (46%) of our readers who went to a hearing were approved for benefits—double the 23% approval rate at the initial application stage. Part of the reason for this difference could simply be that medical conditions often get worse while applicants wait for their hearings, making it easier to convince a judge that they're too disabled to work. But our survey also pointed to another difference at the hearing stage: More than seven in 10 readers (71%) hired a lawyer to represent them at the hearing, compared to 3 in 10 (30%) who had a lawyer's help with the initial application. And that legal representation made a big difference in the outcomes (more on that below).
It can be discouraging to learn how many SSDI and SSI applications are denied. But our survey pointed to a few things than improve your chances of being approved for benefits—especially hiring a lawyer. Six in ten (60%) readers who had a lawyer's help at some point in the process ultimately received benefits, compared to about three in ten (31%) of those who went through the process on their own.
As some of our readers told us, many SSDI and SSI applicants don't realize that Social Security rules make hiring an attorney affordable, even for people who aren't working because of their disability. In almost all cases, disability attorneys' fees are limited to 25% of any past-due benefits (or "backpay") they win for their clients, up to a maximum of $6,000. If you don't get benefits, you don't pay your lawyer anything.
More than half (56%) of our readers said their lawyers received $3,000 or more from their backpay award (up to the $6,000 maximum).
Applicants for SSDI or SSI can also get help with their applications from disability representatives who aren't lawyers. Our survey showed that less than half (46%) of readers who used a nonlawyer rep received benefits—an approval rate that was higher than unrepresented readers but lower than those who hired a lawyer. Nonlawyer reps can charge the same fees as lawyers (although some disability advocates like social workers might help with the initial application for free).
Our survey also highlighted one of the most difficult aspects of applying for Social Security disability: the amount of time you have to wait for a final decision. But there's a big difference in wait times, depending on where you live and how far you go in the process. At the application stage, it generally doesn't take very long to hear the results. More than six in ten readers (62%) received an answer within three months after filing their applications, while nearly four in ten (37%) got a response within three months.
Readers had to wait much longer to resolve their case when they appealed after an initial denial. Applicants have to go through a reconsideration review before they can request a disability hearing; according to government data, this step took about 109 days on average in 2019.
After that, our survey showed a wide range in the amount of time it took to get a hearing date. About two in ten (19%) were able to see a disability judge within six months after their request. But nearly six in ten (58%) waited more than a year, and it took more than two years for 14% of readers. Counting the additional time it took to get a decision after a hearing (usually within three months), our survey showed that the entire process, from the initial application through the hearing decision, typically took two to three years.
However, it's important to note that our survey included readers who had completed the process in 2017 or earlier, when case backlogs were near their peak. More recent government statistics indicate that Social Security has reduced the national average wait time for a hearing to 10 months (as of October 2020), with a range of six to 16 months at different hearing offices around the country.
The most common primary impairments reported by our readers were back or neck problems (22% of all readers in the survey) and mood or anxiety disorders such as depression or PTSD (16%). Unfortunately, our survey also showed that approval rates for these impairments were lower than average. About a third (34%) of readers with spinal problems ultimately received benefits (either initially or after a hearing). The approval rate was only slightly higher (37%) for those with mood and anxiety disorders. These results indicate how difficult it can be to convince disability examiners and judges that your back pain or depression really prevents you from being able to work, no matter how much it makes you suffer.
At the other end of the scale, readers with multiple sclerosis or cancer were much more likely to be approved for benefits (68% for MS and 64% for all types of cancer).
Our survey pointed to a few other factors that may affect the likelihood of receiving Social Security disability benefits, including when you last worked, recent medical visits, age, gender, and whether you applied for SSDI or SSI. See the Social Security Disability Survey Statistics page to learn more about these and other survey results.