The “3 to 5 Months” Wait Time, and Why It’s Disappointing

The Social Security Administration (SSA) website claims that applicants typically wait three to five months to receive a decision—but how long realistically should you expect to wait? We’ll break down the timelines, expectations, and what-if scenarios of the Social Security Disability (SSD) application process. By the end of this article, you will know what to expect and how to answer the number one question in the disability application process: How long does it take to get disability benefits?

The Social Security disability office doesn’t have a deadline for either applications or appeals—that means that they are not obligated to provide an answer in any given timeframe. That’s why many applicants find that they wait six months to two years before finally receiving benefits. Here’s what you need to know about various types of claims and a brief overview of the four stages of application and appeals:

Expedited Claims

The SSA has two general criteria for pushing an application through faster. The first is that the disability is classified as terminal. “Terminal” means that it will significantly shorten a person’s life. An example of a terminal disability may be cancer.

The second criteria for being fast-tracked is that the condition is on the Compassionate Allowance List (CAL). People with a condition on CAL always meet the SSA’s definition of “disabled” and are often approved. If you’re eligible for an expedited claim, you may be approved as little as 30 days.

General Claims

First-time applicants may be approved in three months. In 2018, the SSA approved just 20% (or just 1 in 5) first-time applicants. It is common for applicants to have to appeal their claims, especially if they are not applying with a lawyer.

Appealed disability claims have four steps before a person would have to reapply. You may be approved at any point in this process:

  1. Reconsideration
  2. A hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
  3. An appeals council review
  4. Federal court

The amount of time it takes for your application to be approved depends on which level of appeal your claim must go through. For example, some applicants who have their claim approved after reconsideration may be approved within six months. Applicants who take their claim to the appeals council for review may experience a wait time of two years. Appealing to a Federal court may take more than a year after the appeals council.

Inside the Social Security Disability Claims Approval Process

Getting your SSD benefits claim approved by the SSA is a lengthy process full of questions: What goes on behind the scenes during the Social Security disability claims approval process? How many people handle one application? How does the agency investigate a person’s work history and confirm his or her medical condition? These are common questions many who are thinking about applying for SSD benefits ask themselves and their attorneys. Most people don’t have an inside look at the claims approval process and may not realize a lot of work goes into examining each application.

[UPDATE: We’ve produced an infographic about the disability claims process—what the steps are, how many people get approved at each step, and even how a disability lawyer can get you approved faster and for more money. See the disability application process, visualized, here.]

The SSA has revised its disability approval process numerous times to make it more efficient and user-friendly to ensure all eligible applicants receive their needed payments. Understanding the internal process can help applicants gain a better picture of the SSD application timeline. Here are the basics of the process:

  1. Application Handed Over to the State Disability Agency and a Disability Examiner

According to Tim Moore, a former disability examiner for the SSA, the first step in the long claims approval process is to send your Social Security disability benefits application to a state disability agency, which is also called Disability Determination Services (DDS).

This step is where your application will be assigned to a disability examiner, who is a case-processing specialist. Your application’s disability examiner will collect much of the needed information and provide the initial determination about your claim. This gathering is at the heart of your claim approval process.

  1. Examiner Contacts Medical Personnel and Past Employers

Case-processing specialists must review all of the application’s information, and only after doing so may they contact your physicians for current medical records, or records that are no older than 90 days, Moore wrote. As a former examiner himself, Moore noted this is the step in the process where you might be contacted to undergo one or more consultative examinations (CEs) so the examiner can have your current medical condition on file. CEs are often only short physical or mental exams.

According to the SSA, appointed physicians must follow strict CE guidelines. Moore said CEs don’t necessarily provide objective measurements, and you may not be asked to undergo one. The examiner may also contact your past employers about your work history if you had been employed previously. Understanding your relevant past work history is essential to the process, Moore claimed.

  1. Specialist May Ask You to Complete Daily Living Questionnaire

You might have to fill out a daily-living questionnaire about how your medical condition impacts your day-to-day activities. Your third-party contact person may also be asked to observe your daily activities.

  1. Examiner Makes Initial Claim Determination

The case-processing specialist will then decide your residual functional capacity, or what types of activities you are able to do despite your limitations.

  1. Application Goes to the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review

Once your case examiner provides a determination, your claim is sent to the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), according to the SSA. The ODAR is the department that schedules and holds disability hearings and fields all SSA applications, including retirement and survivors benefits. Because there is a limited number of judges and the ODAR’s two case-processing divisions have only a few hundred offices across the country, this part of the process can take up a large chunk of time.

  1. Your Application Hearing

Your case will then be scheduled by the ODAR, and you will be notified of your hearing date. According to the SSA, approximately 1,300 administrative law judges (ALJs) make more than 700,000 rulings every year, so it can take a while.

If your case is denied at the hearing stage, you should appeal immediately with the help of an experienced Social Security attorney or advocate. Hiring an attorney from the beginning may improve your chances of being found eligible the first time.

Why There Is Such a Long Wait for Social Security Disability Benefits?

While there may be ways to speed up the approval process for your SSD benefits, waiting for SSD eligibility can take months—and even longer if you are appealing a denial. For some, not receiving Social Security disability payments can mean not paying bills or receiving needed medical care. Why does it take so long to receive Social Security disability benefits? Simply put, there are more applications than the SSA can handle.

Cutting Through the Backlog

Wait times differ across the country, but it is a good bet to expect to wait for at least six months. According to the SSA, the shortest wait times are in Shreveport, LA, with 6 months; Metairie, LA, with 6.5 months; Moreno Valley, CA, at 7 months; and Stockton, CA, with 7 months. In certain parts of the US, wait times can be as high as 14 months.

For many people, waiting more than a year to have their application heard can be devastating. In an interview with WIVB, Ohio resident Kathy Nobilio said she was lucky her bank understood that she had been waiting for more than a year for payments.

“[My appeal for benefits] is just sitting there—nothing has been done,” Nobilio told the news source. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my house. The bank has been very patient.”

Some people may think they could receive benefits faster if they apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but the Ohio Bar says the “laws governing who medically qualify are the same” for both programs. According to the Federal Times, the issue may worsen as the number of SSA employees continues to decline.

“Given the expectation of leaner future budgets, SSA needs to plan to meet its mission with fewer resources,” the Office of the Inspector General said, according to the Fiscal Times.

For those thinking about applying for SSD benefits, working with a Social Security attorney or advocate can improve their chances of being approved the first time around, as appealing a denial only prolongs wait times.

Getting Approved for Disability Benefits

While there may not be a concrete answer as to how long it will take for a Social Security disability approval, there are ways to possibly speed up the process.

1. Consult a Lawyer

An attorney or advocate who specializes in social security disability cases will know exactly what is needed in terms of documentation, evidence, and other resources in order to complete an application. Because they specialize in handling this sort of case, they can take the guesswork out of applying, which would otherwise slow down the process. Since 80% of all applicants have an attorney by the final stage, it is recommended that you start with one to improve your chances of a favorable outcome.

2. Disability Seriousness

The CAL is comprised of conditions that are so severe they most likely meet the Social Security Administration’s definition of ‘disability.’ If you suffer from a medical condition on the CAL list you may be put on a faster track towards approval.

3. Provide Complete Information

All of the information included in the application should discuss medical treatments for the disability as well as the names of all doctors who provide treatment, facility addresses of hospitals and doctor’s offices and other places treatment is received and dates of treatment. Offering all of the necessary information from the start will save the disability examiner from having to track it down later, which can slow down the entire process.

SSD Application Process: If Your Claim’s Denied

The SSD application process doesn’t end if your first claim’s denied. Instead, you have 60 days from the day your denial letter arrives to file an appeal. However, where you live largely determines how long you’ll wait for an appeals hearing. See average appeals hearing wait times in your state or region here. Currently, the national average wait time is 17.3 months before your case is heard. In other words, you’ll wait at least two years from the date you apply if you win SSD benefits on appeal. Applicants who miss the deadline to appeal must start the SSD application process all over again. Unfortunately, re-applying also lowers your chances for approval… so appealing is always your best option.

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The last thing you want if you’ve recently become disabled is for this process to take two years or longer, so it’s a good idea to speak with an experienced Social Security disability advocate or attorney before you start the application process. Not only will they be able to help you prepare, but they also know what to do in the event that your application gets denied during the first round. The faster your claim is reviewed and approved, the faster you’ll start receiving the benefits you need.

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