It can take years to get a final decision on your application for Social Security disability benefits. Much of the usual delay comes from waiting for an ALJ hearing. (If you're denied benefits after you submit your initial application, you'll probably have to request a Social Security hearing and hope that the judge will grant you benefits.)
Waiting times for hearings vary from region to region. For instance, in 2022, the average wait from hearing request to hearing was nine months in Toledo, Ohio, while the average wait in Memphis, Tennessee was two years.
To avoid a hearing and reduce some of the delay, you can:
Here are eight other ways you might be able to use to speed up your disability application.
An OTR decision allows you to skip the ALJ hearing—and the delay that comes with waiting for a hearing.
If you've submitted enough medical evidence to clearly show you're disabled, you can request an "on the record" (OTR) review rather than waiting for an appeal hearing. An administrative law judge (ALJ) can make an OTR decision if your file contains enough evidence to show that you're disabled, and the judge doesn't see a need for testimony from you or from a vocational expert at a hearing.
To request an OTR review, you contact the Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) nearest you, but you need to wait until after you've appealed a denial of benefits and requested a hearing. The OHO will review your request for an OTR and will either grant it, deny it, or ask you (or your lawyer) for more information.
If OHO grants your request for an OTR decision, an ALJ will issue a written decision approving your disability application. If it denies your request, your application will proceed on to an ALJ hearing.
Note that unless you have a disability lawyer, Social Security won't allow you to negotiate with Social Security over your disability onset date. So if the judge wants to approve you for disability but move your onset date later (so that you'll get less back pay), you'll need to wait for your hearing.
Another way to avoid the wait for an ALJ hearing is to get an earlier decision from a staff attorney employed by Social Security ("called an attorney advisor"). Attorney advisor decisions are available for applicants who:
To request an attorney advisor decision, contact your local OHO office after you've requested a hearing. An attorney advisor may ask you or your lawyer for more evidence or may schedule a conference with you to find out more.
If you're successful, you'll get a written attorney advisor opinion that is "fully favorable"—that is, it will award you benefits back to the onset date that you claimed in your application (your "alleged onset date").
If the attorney advisor decides there isn't enough evidence to approve your claim, your case will just proceed on to the ALJ hearing.
If the attorney advisor thinks that you're disabled but disagrees about the date you became disabled, Social Security will notify you that the attorney advisor has come to a "partially favorable decision." The ALJ will still set a hearing date to discuss your onset date, but you have the option of declining the ALJ hearing and accepting the partially favorable decision (and less back pay).
If you have a very serious illness and you meet the other qualifications for SSI or SSDI, then you may be able to get benefits much more quickly. Social Security maintains a list of over 200 conditions in its "Compassionate Allowances List" (CAL).
If you have medical evidence that you have one of the CAL illnesses, then Social Security will award benefits in a matter of weeks instead of years. Examples of the types of conditions on the list are Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS), Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease, and Tay-Sachs Disease, plus many types of cancers.
Social Security is supposed to screen disability applications to see if they are eligible for the CAL program, but if you have a Compassionate Allowances condition, you should alert Social Security when you apply. And you can speed up the CAL process by submitting all of the medical evidence showing you have a CAL condition with your application.
If you have a terminal illness and meet all of the non-medical qualifications for SSI or SSDI, then you should be able to get your benefits quickly. Social Security has a program called TERI that allows the agency to expedite applications when the applicant has claimed a terminal illness or a condition that's usually terminal.
If you (or a loved one) has a terminal illness, make sure you submit the key medical records with the initial application to speed up the process. If you or a loved one is receiving hospice care (inpatient or in your home), make sure Social Security knows that, because it is one of the things that the agency looks for when screening for TERI cases. For more information, see Nolo's article on TERI disability claims.
For people who qualify for SSI, Social Security maintains a list of conditions for which it will issue SSI benefits before it issues an official decision on a disability application. This program is called Presumptive Disability (PD).
Presumptive disability conditions include:
If you have one of the conditions on the list, you can receive your SSI payments for up to six months while Social Security processes your case. If Social Security ends up denying your application, you don't have to pay back the PD benefits. For more information, see Nolo's article on presumptive disability.
You may be able to get your ALJ hearing scheduled sooner than is usual with your local Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) if you have a "dire need."
Social Security defines a dire need as an immediate threat to health or safety, such as not enough money for food, shelter, or medical care.
You should write a letter describing your situation to your OHO office and ask for your hearing to be scheduled quickly if you:
If you have a disability that began while you were on active duty, you can request that your claim be expedited. For more information, see our article on expediting disability claims for military service members or veterans.
If you've been waiting a long time for your ALJ hearing and you don't qualify for any of the options listed above, you can try calling or writing your senator and congressperson. Your legislator's office staff can contact Social Security on your behalf to try to get your case heard sooner.
Updated April 27, 2023
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