Obtaining Social Security Disability Benefits is often a frustrating and time-consuming process. Many Americans who apply are commonly denied at the first and second levels after waiting several months just to hear a decision. It is best to be aware in advance of the general time it takes to receive a decision notice.
Initial Application Level
The initial application is the first step all claimants must take when applying for disability benefits. At this initial level, it usually takes 4-6 months for a decision to be made. This is because Social Security must process all the initial application paperwork, determine if the claimant meets the technical requirements, then send the case to Disability Determination Services (DDS) where the case resides for the majority of the time. It is assigned to a caseworker at DDS who must request all of the claimant’s medical records and thoroughly analyze them to determine if the claimant can or cannot go back to work based on what their medical records state. The award rate at this level is about 35%.
If your initial application is denied, the next step is to file an appeal, called a Request for Reconsideration. It generally takes anywhere from 3-5 months to hear a decision once the appeal has been filed. This is because Social Security must again process the basic paperwork, and then request and re-analyze all your updated medical records. Only about 15% of claimants are awarded at this level.
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Hearing
Many applicants find themselves preparing to go before a judge as the initial and reconsideration award rates are so low. However, the majority of states are extremely backlogged in setting hearing dates and thus it normally takes anywhere from 12-24 months to have a hearing scheduled. During this long wait time, your attorney will be preparing your case for the hearing. It is important to make sure you have copies of all your medical records to be thoroughly prepared for your hearing.
Appeals Council Review
If your hearing is denied and you wish to continue to appeal, the next step is filing an Appeals Council Review, where it will generally take 12-18 months to hear another decision. Not all cases qualify to proceed to this level, but if your case is accepted then the ALJ’s decision will be reviewed for any errors and your case will either be sent back to the hearing level, approved, or denied and moved to the last level in the process.
Federal Court Review
If your disability claim reaches this level, you will have to wait anywhere from 12-24 months to hear a decision. At this level, a case is filed in the United States district court for your claim. You can either be approved or denied at this level; in the case of the latter, you will be able to re-file a claim at the initial application level.