The duration of a Social Security Disability claim varies widely, depending on the applicant, the disability, and the circumstances of a given case. Someone with a straightforward case and an obvious, documented disability may receive quick approval, while borderline cases, or those with less documentation or more complex situations, may take longer for a decision to be made.
On average, an initial decision on a disability application takes three or four months. But in cases where there isn’t enough medical evidence your medical files, it takes longer.
One of the factors that slows down many cases is the SSA's request for a consultative exam (CE). The SSA will request a CE if your treating doctor didn’t include particular information in your file that the SSA needs to make a decision, or if there’s conflicting information in your record, and the SSA wants more information to settle the issue. The need for multiple CEs (for example, one with a medical doctor and one with a psychiatrist) will make the process take even longer.
If you are approved, you should receive a letter notifying you that you have been granted Social Security disability benefits, called a Notice of Award, at the end three or four months, but sometimes longer. Your benefit checks should start within a month of the verification letter.
If you are denied benefits, you’ll receive a letter telling you the reason why you were denied benefits, also within three or four months, but sometimes longer.
You can file a reconsideration request to have your case looked at a second time, by a different claims examiner. It will take another three or four months, on average, for a decision to be made on the reconsideration.
If you are denied at the reconsideration level and you want to appeal the decision, you’ll have to request that a hearing be scheduled before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Getting a hearing scheduled can take anywhere from eight to eighteen months, depending on the backlog in your area of the country.
If you meet one of SSA’s disability listings, the decision process will be shorter than if you don’t – because you will need to have an RFC (residual functional capacity) created for you, and a medical-vocational evaluation done. You are more likely to meet a listing if your condition is severe and your medical record is comprehensive.
The SSA recognizes that in cases where the applicant has a serious disability, he or she needs disability benefits as soon as possible. If you are filing for SSI, you could get "presumptive disability" benefits. If you are filing for SSDI, you could be eligible for a "compassionate allowance."
The SSA grants immediate SSI benefits to those with severe disabilities who are likely to be found eligible for benefits. If you suffer from a disability like total blindness, stroke, cerebral palsy, end-stage renal disease, terminal illness, HIV/AIDs, or spinal cord injury, you may qualify for "presumptive disability" benefits.
The SSA will approve SSDI benefits quickly for SSDI applicants with serious, easily identifiable conditions that are almost always approved for benefits. There are 100 conditions on the SSA’s compassionate allowance list, including many types of cancer, mesothelioma, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and various heart conditions. These disabilities receive expedited processing.
For more information, see Quick Disability Determinations for SSDI and SSI.