For individuals who have become disabled and are unable to work as a result of their health condition, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits can be a financial lifesaver.
Unfortunately, for many people, the application and approval process can be excruciatingly long. Facing an uncertain amount of time without income can create additional anxiety for individuals already trying to get well.
Just as no two illnesses are the same, no two SSDI applications are the same either. The length of the application process varies depending on the severity of the disease, the thoroughness of the application, and even the geographical area that the individual lives. While someone with a life-limiting illness could be approved in a few weeks through a compassionate allowance, others may face denials that extend their claim out more than two years.
With that being said, the Social Security Disability claim process does follow a general timeline. There are three main steps to the SSDI claim process, although not all applicants will need to process through each stage.
The Social Security Disability application process begins when an application is received by an applicant’s local Social Security Administration (SSA) field office. The field office is responsible for verifying any non-medical eligibility requirements, such as marital status, age, address, employment, or Social Security coverage information.
Once processed by the field office, the application is sent to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office. The DDS is a federally-funded state agency that is responsible for developing the medical evidence for a claim and determining whether or not an applicant is medically disabled.
The DDS then returns the case to the field office for processing. If a claimant was determined to be disabled, the SSA field office completes the administrative aspect, calculates benefits, and begins payment. If the claimant was denied, the file lives at the field office in the event that an applicant decides to appeal.
As a general rule, the initial application process takes anywhere from 3 to 5 months to complete. The wait time depends on a multitude of factors, including how complete an application is, how quickly medical providers respond to medical records requests, and how long it takes for the SSA to obtain additional information it needs to make a decision.
Approximately 1/3 of applicants are approved at the initial application process, meaning that over 60% of first-time disability applicants are initially denied.
Request for Reconsideration
If your initial application was denied, you have 60 days from the date at the top of your denial letter to file an appeal for reconsideration. The reconsideration process follows a similar format to the initial claims process, except that another DDS examiner completely unknown to your case will review your application. However, as the same rules bind them, unless new medical information is received, requests for reconsideration are often denied as well.
The reconsideration process typically takes another 3 to 5 months from start to finish. At the end of the reconsideration process, it is not uncommon to be six to eight months into the application process.
If your request for reconsideration is denied, you have 60 days from the dated denial to request an appeals hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). This step of the process is by far the longest wait.
Depending on the state in which you live, it can take anywhere from 10 months to two years to receive an appeals hearing date. While the wait is excessive, an applicant’s chances of being approved for disability benefits dramatically improve at the hearing level. In fact, the SSA estimates that approximately 50% of disability awards are granted at the appeals hearing.
What Is the Timeframe for the Entire Disability Process?
As noted above, every case is different. Individuals with severe, life-limiting illnesses may be approved for benefits in a few weeks. Those people who meet a Blue Book listing for a condition may be approved with a couple of months. However, the vast majority of disabled applicants will wait anywhere from 3 months to over two years for a final disability determination.
Should I Hire a Disability Lawyer to Help Me Navigate the Process?
While the application timeline for SSDI benefits is essentially the same throughout the US, each state may have small variations to the process. Hiring a qualified Disability Attorney will ensure that you are following each step, as well as avoiding missing any critical deadlines.
An experienced Social Security lawyer can help you understand the process and perhaps offer useful suggestions while you wait for your disability benefits to be approved. Fill out the Free Case Evaluation form on this page to be connected with an experienced disability attorney.