Without a doubt, this is a question that nearly every applicant for Social Security disability or SSI disability benefits asks. Unfortunately, there are no concrete answers to this question, for several reasons.
First of all, not every one's disability case is the same. Some individuals will present medical impairments on their disability applications that will immediately stand out as obvious approvals (though this happens in only a small percentage of cases). Examples of clear cut cases include ALS, advanced cancer, severe kidney disease, blindness, AIDs, and double amputations.
The amount of time it takes a claimant's doctors to supply a disability examiner with requested records varies. In most cases, a disability examiner will send out requests for medical records on the same day they receive the claimant's case file, but the amount of time it takes to "get the records in" will largely influence the amount of time it takes to process a claim. Fortunately, Social Security is partnering with large HMOs like Kaiser Permanente to arrange for the electronic transfer of records, which should help eliminate the delays caused by waiting for medical records.
Another factor that may influence how long it takes to get a disability claim approved is who the case is assigned to. If a claimant's SSI or Social Security disability case is assigned to a disability examiner who only has one hundred cases in their caseload, the claimant will most likely get a quicker answer than if their case had been assigned to an examiner struggling under the weight of three hundred cases (and some examiners do have this many cases on which to work).
Obviously, these are factors that are largely beyond the control of an individual applying for disability benefits. But, even so, a claimant can still strive to influence how long it takes to get a decision on a claim, and, hopefully, get their disability approved.
Provide complete and detailed information. First of all, a claimant for Social Security disability and/or SSI benefits should indicate all of their medical treatment sources on their disability application. This means the names of doctors who provided treatment, the addresses of treatment facilities (hospitals, doctor's offices, etc), and the dates of treatment. Doing so will provide a detailed roadmap for a disability claims examiner to follow and will certainly make it much easier for the examiner to gather as much supportive documentation as possible.
Submit medical records along with the initial application. Secondly, a claimant, whenever possible, should obtain their medical records personally and submit them with their application. Of course, due to a variety of different issues, this may be easier said than done. (Some doctors are reluctant to give you medical records, and some hospitals may try to charge a high fee for copying medical records. But in some states, medical providers can't charge for copying medical records used to apply for disability.) However, for those who are able to accomplish this, submitting a disability application WITH the medical records attached may literally shave months off the amount of time it ordinarily takes to process a claim. In particular for those whose claims are strong, it can dramatically reduce the length of time it takes to get disability approved.
Ask Social Security about its fast-track programs. If you have a serious illness that's listed on the compassionate allowance list, a terminal illness, or one that qualifies for presumptive disability benefits, Social Security will expedite the processing of your claim. For more information, see our section on expedited disability benefits.
Of course, if you're initial application is denied, it can take up to a year or two to successfully appeal. For more information, see our section on the timing of disability appeals.