Important: We updated this article in March 2022 to reflect current Social Security administration data and policies. The application and approval process for Social Security disability (SSD) can be painstakingly long, especially today when more applicants are filing disability claims. Most people know they need to apply as soon as their health forces them to stop working. However, they usually don’t know how long the process takes from first steps to first check. We’ve broken down the timeline to illustrate the approval process as well as crucial tidbits of information surrounding how to apply for Social Security disability.
How to Begin the SSD Application Process
The SSD application process itself begins in when you fill out your claim. The sooner you do this, the better. That’s because your application date will become crucial once you’ve been approved. After you’ve filled out the application online or in your local Social Security office, it will get sent to your state’s Disability Determination Services. There, it will be given to disability claims examiners and reviewed for approval or denial. The process for determining each applicant’s fate varies greatly, and there is no time limit set on when individual decisions should be made. It largely depends on how much information the examiner needs to collect, how long it will take to collect it and how many applications they currently have in the queue.
Your doctors will be contacted as well as any hospitals you’ve visited, calls to your friends and relatives will be made, and all of your work and medical records will be combed over. If the examiner still feels unsure about his or her decision, he or she will request you visit one of their doctors for a medical exam. This can all take anywhere from one to six months in total. To expedite the process a bit, it’s a good idea to collect as many of these medical records and testimonials as you can. The less digging the examiner needs to do, the better off you’ll be.
SSD Application Process: What Happens After You’ve Filed?
All in all, the SSA only approves about 1 in 5 first-time disability applicants (20%). Those with denied claims must appeal the decision within 60 days. It usually takes another three to six months for the SSA to issue your next determination decision. If the second decision (also known as reconsideration) results in your claim’s denial, then you’ll need to request a hearing. The usual wait time before appearing in court is six months to one year. That means you may have to wait up to two years after submitting your initial application. However, another 15% eventually win benefits on appeal, bringing the total approval rate for 2020 up to 35%.
SSD Application Process: After Claim Approval
Once you receive approval, it will take some time to start receiving payments. The SSA considers your application date to be your “onset date.” They use your AOD to mark the start of your mandatory five-month waiting period. This may sound like a long stretch of time to go without benefits, but it’s unlikely the SSA will approve your application before this point. That said, it generally still takes 1-2 months to start receiving your monthly benefits. The SSA also deposits any lump-sum backpay they owe you to cover anywhere from 5-17 months’ worth of SSD benefits.
SSA Denied You Benefits? Then Do This Next
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 for an appeals hearing is 11.8 months. In other words, you’ll wait at least 1-2 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.
Bonus Tip: If the SSA denies your claim for disability benefits, wait at least 60 days before you file another application. Otherwise, they’ll automatically reject your claim again because you applied too soon after your most recent denial.
Get Free Legal Assistance
The last thing you want is for the SSD application process to take two years or longer. To avoid this, you should speak with an experienced Social Security disability attorney before you start the SSD application process. Having an attorney file your claim nearly triples your chance for getting SSD benefits right away. Best of all, you owe the lawyer $0 for helping you if the SSA doesn’t approve your application. The faster the SSA reviews and approves your claim, the faster your much-needed benefits begin.
Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.