Because there are so many variables and different kinds of situations, the short answer to this question is … “It depends.”
Social Security administers two disability programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI pays benefits to claimants who have paid into Social Security during their working life, and who have a qualifying disability that is expected to last 12 months or longer, or until they pass away. SSI is for people who do not qualify for SSDI. It is generally reserved for people 65 and older who have very low income and few assets who also have a qualifying disability that will last at least 12 months or longer, or until they die. SSI is based strictly on need.
These differences play a part in how long approvals can take place within each of the programs. The other major factor at work here is that applicants will have their cases reviewed at the state level early in the process by an administrator known as Disability Determination Services (DDS). It may have a slightly different name depending on what state you live in. Each state administers oversight of these programs a bit differently, and while the focus is always on trying to make a decision as quickly as possible, the fact is that decision times will be impacted by which state you file a claim in, what the backlog is for that particular state, and what kind of follow-up actions DDS will require going forward.
However, generally after you submit an initial application to Social Security process, the normal review time is three to five months. Even if you receive an approval after an initial submission (and most do not, with denial rates that run about 70%), you may still have to wait for several months to actually start receiving benefits if you applied to SSDI. If you applied to SSI and were approved, you generally start receiving benefits within 30 days.
Because the vast majority of applicants are rejected on an initial application, many of them must go through an appeal process. There are multiple levels of appeal, and each one will tack on a significant amount of time to the final possible approval of your application.
The first level, known as a reconsideration appeal, actually has less of a wait than when you submit an initial application. This is because Social Security will have most, if not all, records in hand already from your initial submission and with those documents already in hand as well as an initial decision, the appeal may take only 30 to 60 days before a decision is reached.
If your Reconsideration appeal is denied, and they often are, you will need to file to have your case heard in front of an Administration Law Judge (ALJ). Unfortunately, the number of judges who can hear your case is extremely limited no matter where you are in the United States, and you could have to wait for another full year or longer before your case is heard by an ALJ. Don’t despair, though. It’s at this level that the highest percentage of cases are approved with more than 60 percent of cases ruling in favor of the applicants.
If you are turned down after such a long wait, you do have another level of appeal you can explore by having your case heard in front of an Appeals Council. An Appeals Council will review the ALJ’s decision and either approve, deny or remand the case back to the judge for more consideration. Unfortunately, it can take three months to up to two years to receive an Appeals Council decision. Much like at the ALJ level, the speed at which this happens depends on the backlog of cases waiting to be heard and how complicated your case is. It is not uncommon for a decision to take another year or more. The other discouraging part at this level is that very few cases are granted benefits, with as little as five percent winning a positive outcome.
The timeframes can be discouraging, especially if you are struggling financially, physically or mentally in your situation. But the good news is that not all applicants need to go through the entire process when they file for disability. Social Security does have expedited processes for some applicants, but there is a catch, and that is that you must be suffering from serious disabilities to qualify for a quick decision on your application.
If a person has a terminal condition, and they are not expected to live more than six months, their claim can be expedited through the Terminal Illness Program (TERI). Many forms of cancer, patients in hospice or transplant patients will qualify when a doctor notifies DDS as part of the initial application process. Approval times are generally less than 30 days under this scenario.
Compassionate Allowances (CAL) also allow Social Security to process applications more quickly. CAL identifies disabilities that are listed in the Blue Book of Impairments, which is a listing of the most serious disabilities that make it obvious a person will qualify for benefits. Being matched to a Blue Book listing expedites the approval process and can lead to a quicker dispersal of benefits as well.
With the Quick Disability Determination (QDD) process, Social Security uses a predictive computer modeling program that analyzes an applicant’s files and determines if certain factors are present that would indicate a high possibility of approval for an application. When these are present, the application is sent to a special Quick Disability Determination group for review and decision, which could lead to approval within as little as 20 days if all other parts of your application are complete.