You find out that you're approved for Social Security disability benefits when you get a disability award letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration (SSA). This letter is also sometimes called a disability approval letter.
If you get approved at the initial application stage, you'll actually receive the award notice from the office of Disability Determination Services (DDS), the state agency that decides Social Security disability cases. If you get approved after an appeal hearing, the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) will send you a notice of decision.
The award letter, officially called a "Notice of Award," will explain in detail the date that Social Security decided your disability began (your "disability onset date") and the beginning and ending dates of your five-month waiting period, along with how your past-due benefits, or "back pay," was calculated from these dates.
Social Security award letters generally also answer most of the benefit payment questions that disability applicants have, such as:
Your award letter will also note if you'll receive your back payments in installments (SSI only).
Social Security will send a copy of the award letter to your legal representative, if you hired one.
If you want a copy of your original Notice of Award, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 (from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm). But in most instances, a "benefit verification letter" is what you need. You can download a benefit verification letter from www.ssa.gov if you need proof that you're receiving benefits.
A benefit verification letter will include the amount of income you receive every month and the date that you receive the payment every month. You might need the letter to verify your income for a rental application or loan application.
Typically, claimants can expect to receive Social Security disability award letters within one to two months from the date they're approved, but in many instances, the wait may be significantly shorter, or longer. The timing of award letters depends on what stage of the process you're at—initial application or appeal.
You might be lucky enough to have Social Security approve your disability claim at the initial application stage. In this case, you would receive a disability approval letter a month or two after the state disability agency (DDS) has made its decision. But first, DDS has to send your file back to Social Security for final processing before Social Security can send the award letter, called a "Notice of Award."
It takes DDS anywhere from three to six months to make the initial decision before they can send the file back to Social Security.
If you appealed a denial, a different examiner will review your claim at DDS in what's called a "reconsideration." If Social Security approves your claim at the reconsideration level of the disability process, you are up against the same backlogs at DDS.
DDS is currently taking an average of 180 days, or six months, to decide reconsiderations. (Social Security Administration Disability Reconsideration Average Processing Time, 2022.) Before 2020, DDS used to completed reconsiderations in about 100 days, on average.
If you appealed a reconsideration denial and you get approved for disability benefits following an administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing, you'll be waiting for at least a month or two after the hearing to get an approval letter.
Even if the judge appears to agree that you're disabled, after the hearing, the judge may need to look more closely at your file to decide the date you became disabled—the date the judge settles on ("your established onset date") may differ from your alleged onset date.
Next, the decision needs to be written up. To help speed things up, the ALJ usually hands off the actual writing of the decision to a "decision writer." Decision writers compose the "Notice of Decision" that the hearing office sends out (in the judge's name), but the judge has to approve the final letter before it goes out. After the judge approves the award letter, the file is sent back to Social Security before your letter is sent out.
If the judge makes a fully favorable or partially favorable decision following your hearing, you should receive the Notice of Decision and the award letter, or approval letter, one to two months following the decision.
Updated August 14, 2023