When you've applied for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits, waiting can be hard—especially if your claim is denied. But you shouldn't be too surprised by a denial letter.
Most Social Security disability claims are initially denied—meaning you'll probably have to navigate the appeals process to get your benefits. There are four levels of appeals for SSI and SSDI cases:
Unfortunately, the Social Security disability appeals process usually takes longer than the initial determination—from several months to a year or more, depending on how far up the appeals chain you go.
(Learn more about the Social Security appeals process.)
The length of the disability appeals process depends on many things, including:
The following time lengths are averages for each step in the Social Security disability appeals process.
A reconsideration is an administrative review of your claim. A new claims examiner will check to ensure the initial determination was made following Social Security procedures.
When the Social Security Administration (SSA) mails you an initial determination denying your benefits, you'll have 60 days (from the date on the letter) to request a reconsideration. You can expect to wait three to six months for your reconsideration to be completed. In 2021, the average length of time for a reconsideration was 147 days. Unfortunately, the most common result of reconsideration is another denial.
If you disagree with the reconsideration decision, you can request a disability hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). You'll have 60 days from the date of your denial letter to request an ALJ hearing.
For most disability applicants, this hearing is your best shot at winning disability benefits. And that's with good reason:
But once again, there's a huge backlog of cases waiting for ALJ hearings in 2023, so you're likely to wait 12 to 18 months for your disability hearing.
If you disagree with the ALJ's decision, you can request an Appeals Council review. Again, there's a deadline. You must file a "Request for Review of Hearing Decision" within 60 days of the date of your denial letter.
The Appeals Council will first decide if it will review your case. If it agrees to do so, the council will review the ALJ proceedings looking for errors. You won't be able to submit new evidence, but your attorney can submit a written argument explaining the mistakes the ALJ made.
The Appeals Council could decide your case after review or send it back to the administrative law judge. You can expect to wait about a year before the Appeals Council looks at your case. If it's sent back to the ALJ, the disability determination will take even longer.
If you disagree with the decision of the Appeals Council—whether the council refused to review your case or denied your claim—you can file a lawsuit with the appropriate federal District Court. If you don't already have one, you'll need to hire an attorney for this appeal.
How long it takes to get your day in court will depend entirely on how busy the docket is in your district. Expect to wait several months at the least.
In certain circumstances, Social Security might expedite your case. If waiting for your appeal creates a financial crisis, you could write a dire need letter asking that your appeal be expedited. But you'll need to demonstrate that your situation is truly dire.
Hiring a lawyer can sometimes speed up your disability appeal. An experienced disability attorney knows how to navigate Social Security's appeals process so that your case isn't unnecessarily delayed, and in some cases, might be able to get you a decision from an ALJ without a hearing.