How Long Does It Take to Get a Social Security Disability Award Letter?

When will I receive my disability award letter from Social Security?

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Question

If I'm approved for disability, when will I receive my disability approval letter from Social Security? How long does it generally take to get an award letter?

Answer

The state agencies that decide whether disability applicants are disabled, called Disability Determination Services (DDS), are severely backed up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of early 2022, the DDSs have reached a backlog of nearly one million pending initial claims and reconsiderations.

So it will take you much longer to receive an award letter in 2022 than it used to. How long it takes to get a disability approval letter depends on what stage of the process you get approved at.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Award Letter at the Initial Application Stage?

If Social Security approves your disability claim at the initial application stage, you should receive a disability allowance letter within a month or two after the state disability agency (DDS) has made its decision. 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."

But it's taking much longer for DDS to make the initial decisions. The national average processing time for initial claims was 5 1/2 months in 2021. DDS used to take about 3 1/2 to 4 months to make most disability decisions, but in 2022, you should expect to wait 5 to 6 months for an initial decision.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Award Letter at the Reconsideration Stage?

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 170 days to decide reconsiderations, or almost six months. In past years, DDS generally completed reconsiderations in about 100 days, on average.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Award Letter at the Hearing Stage?

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. This will happen even if the judge indicates to you at the hearing that your claim will be approved. Why is this? First, the judge may need to look more closely at your file to decide the date you became disabled; that date may differ from your alleged onset date. And second, although disability judges generally decide whether you're disabled or not at the disability hearing, the decisions still have to be written up.

To help speed things up, the ALJ hands off the actual writing of the decision to a "decision writer." Decision writers compose the "Notice of Decision" that is sent out from the hearing office (in the judge's name), but the judge has to approve the final letter. Then the file is sent back to Social Security before your award letter is sent out.

If you're going to receive a fully favorable or partially favorable decision following your hearing, you should receive the Notice of Decision and the award letter one to two months following the decision.

Here's more information on what you can expect to find in the Social Security disability award letter.

Updated February 4, 2022

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