How Long Does the Social Security Disability Claim Process Take? Can I Speed It Up?
In short, if you win your disability case, the time it takes to win can vary from 3 months to 5 years or more, and 60% of those who file never get benefits. In other words, for most people, it is a lot harder to win one of these cases than most people assume, and it often take a lot longer than most people assume. See section 1 for details.
There are two sorts of things you can do increase the odds of winning your case earlier: First, if you are even thinking about claiming disability, you should start working hard, right now, to get the strongest possible evidence that you are disabled, because the clearer your disability is on paper, the more likely you are to win the case at an earlier level. Second, there are a few special circumstances that can move you closer to the head of the long line of people waiting for a decision. But don’t ask to move ahead until you are positive that your case is ready, or you will just lose faster! See section 2 for details.
The most common reason that disabled people lose cases they should have won, and the most common reason that disabled people lose at the early stages of the disability process, is that the medical record does not prove their exact limitations. The most critical steps you can take to improve your chances of winning your claim, and winning it at the earliest possible minute, is to get all of your medical records in a big pile, show them to a lawyer who specializes in Social Security, and getting from him a list of things you must do to improve your odds. I suggest doing this before you even file a claim, and, if possible, before you even quit work. If you have already quit work and if you have already filed a claim, I suggest you do this right now. More enlightened firms, including our firm, will evaluate your records, let you know your chances, and give you guidance at that point, all without charge.
How long does it take?
Sometimes it takes forever. In other words, a surprisingly large number of people never win a case. Of the people who file a disability claim, the majority never win the claim. The percentage of claimants never win their claim has been rising for years, has finally reached 60% of those who file, and that percentage continues to rise.
Half of the people who lose lose because the Administration decides that they haven’t shown enough proof that they are disabled.
Half of those who lose lose because of what the Administration calls a “technical denial.” There are two main programs that the Social Security Administration handles, SSI and Social Security disability. For each you have to show something besides disability. For SSI you have to show that your family has very little income or resources. For Social Security disability you have to have worked, earned money, and paid taxes for a certain number of years. Of the people who never get benefits, most lose because they have too much income or resources to get SSI, and because they haven’t worked enough to get Social Security disability. There are steps you can take if you are turned down for technical reasons. You should get a lawyer to review any technical denial.
Depending on the level where you win, it can take from 3 months to 3 years to win a disability claim
These are the 5 levels a social security case might go to, the time it takes at each level, and the allowance rate at each level:
- After you apply, it takes 3 to 6 months for the Administration to decide a case at the initial level. About 1/3rd of the cases are won at the initial level, and 2/3rds of the cases are denied.
- If you then request a reconsideration, it will take an additional 3 to 5 months to decide the case at the reconsideration level. About 15% of the appealed cases are allowed, and 85% are denied.
- If you then request a hearing, it will take an additional 14-20 months to get to a hearing as of 2017. The time varies a lot depending on where you live. The average win rate varies a lot from judge to judge, with some judges allowing as few as 30% of their cases, and others perhaps 60%. The average rate has been falling in recent years, and is now about 40% of claims at this level are awarded
- If you are denied at the hearing, you can appeal to the Appeals Council. The official statistics say that the average wait time at the Appeals Council level is about a year. But that is misleading, because the actual time varies widely, from 3 months to a year and a half. And the Appeals Council rarely awards a case; usually the most help it will give you is to order another hearing. And recently, they affirm the hearing decision in about 88% of their cases, often denying cases with obvious errors.
- If you are denied at the Appeals Council level, you can appeal to the Federal Courts. The time it takes at this level varies from court to court, but many courts take about 18 months. Nationwide, it used to be that about 1/4 of these cases were sent back for another hearing, but in recent years, because the Administration is turning down more and more sick people, the courts are sending back about half the cases. If you had an unreasonable judge at your Social Security hearing, your odds go up. If you have a lawyer who is experienced at District Court work, as we are, your odds go up.
The volume of appeals to the District Court has been increasing, and the number of cases that are sent back for another hearing have been increasing, in response to the Administration’s tactic of denying more and more cases.
How do I speed things up?
Two ways. The second way is better, and works in more cases.
1.Proving you have a critical case or a dire need
When you file, there are many people waiting in line in front of you. If you can prove one of these things – which most people can’t – you can jump forward in line:
- Prove your condition is terminal
- Prove you have been rated totally disabled by the Veteran’s Administration
- Prove you were injured while on active duty in the armed forces
- Prove your condition is on a list of conditions that are obviously disabling for everyone who has them, for example, Down’s syndrome. You can check to see if your condition “meets a listing” by searching this website for your particular condition.
- Prove you have no food and no way to get food
- Prove you lack needed medical care and that you have no way to get it.
- Prove you lack shelter, that is, you are homeless, or will soon lack shelter. If you are living in a house or an apartment you would have to show you are being evicted or show your mortgage is being foreclosed, or that your home has no utilities or is uninhabitable for some other reason. If you are staying in a shelter, you need to show you are about to be thrown out.
If you can show one of these things to the Social Security Administration of course you should. But never file a dire need request until you are certain that you have all the evidence lined up so that you will win the case! Don’t be in a hurry to lose your case!
2. Speeding the claim up by proving you are disabled in such a clear way that you might win at an earlier level
Setting up the case to win at a hearing before a reasonable judge at your hearing
Provided you get a reasonable judge, your best chance of winning a disability claim is at the hearing level. To improve your chances of winning a case at the hearing level, you should do every one of these things right now:
- Get all of your medical records and look at them. Make sure that every doctor’s visit accurately sets out every health problem you have, and every limitation of function you have.
- Ask your doctor whether he or she will help you prove your disability case. You must get a clear “yes.”
- Make sure you have all objective tests that document your impairments
- See a doctor about once every 3 months, and tell him or her about each of your impairments
- Right now, sit down with a lawyer who specializes in Social Security disability cases and ask him or her whether the impairments you can prove you have are enough to prove disability, and ask him or her what steps you should take right now to improve your chances. If possible, get all of your medical records and show them to him or her.
- Here is what “right now” means: right now. Even if you are working right now, the fact that you are reading this means that you have a serious enough health problem to need to plan your next steps carefully. The longer you wait, the less chance you have to get to work on proving your case, which sometimes requires insurance or money, both of which most people have more of when they are working. But sometimes clever, broke people can win a case by using time and brains instead of insurance and money.
- Hire a lawyer.
Winning the case at the initial and reconsideration levels
This is a lot harder. Few people under 50 win cases at these first two levels, unless they clearly have one of the heath problems on the Social Security “listings” of impairment. To check to see if you might have a health problem at a listed level, search for your health problem on our website. If there is a listing for it that is likely to work, it is fairly likely to show up under our talk about that problem. There are many people who will eventually win their case, but who cannot win it at the initial or reconsideration levels.
Winning your case at the Appeals Council level
To be blunt, the Appeals Council process has almost broken down. In cases where, as often happens, the hearing judge does not follow proper procedure, the case is supposed to be sent back for another hearing. But if there are 5 cases with such obvious errors, the Appeals Council will probably issue form orders denying a new hearing in 3 of those cases.
But that does mean that some cases are won at the Appeals Council level, and you must try if you are disabled. To have your best chance of winning a case at the Appeals Council level, you should
- Thoroughly develop the record before the hearing as outlined above, because, before you can add evidence at the Appeals Council level, you must have a good reason why you didn’t give it to the hearing judge.
- Add any evidence that you can show good cause for not sending in before.
- Make sure you have a lawyer who is experienced at the Appeals Council level. We handle our own Appeals Council cases, but many lawyers refer them to firms with a substantial appellate practice.
Winning your case at the District Court level
After all of the bad news about the procedure inside the Administration, finally a bright note: Unlike the decisionmakers at every other level, who are all employed by the Social Security Administration, Federal District Judges are appointed for life, and cannot be fired unless they get caught committing a crime. One such crime would be talking to one side in a case without talking to the other side. As a result of this wonderful system, while there is no guarantee that a Federal District Judge will make the right decision, I guarantee you that he or she will make the decision that he or she thinks is right, and that is good enough to win a lot of remands in these cases; it used to be about 1/4th of the cases, but with the increase in questionable decisions at lower levels, that number has risen to about half of the cases or better. The District Court might turn you down, but will only do so after studying your case carefully and trying to make a fair decision.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to add evidence at the District Court level, so there are only two ways to increase your chances of winning at that level: make sure the case is developed vigorously at the first three levels, and hire an attorney who handles a lot of District Court work. The majority of Social Security specialists do not handle District Court work at all. This does not mean they are bad attorneys. Rather, it is because an attorney needs to handle a steady flow of a certain kind of case to get good at it. If an attorney only handles his own District Court cases, he or she will probably not get the volume of cases necessary to become well-experienced at them. We solve this problem by handling our own District Court cases, and the District Court cases of about 20 other law firms.