Why Is My Disability Decision Taking So Long?

Most disability cases take a long time to decide, so it's not a bad sign if your case is taking a while.

Updated by , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated 3/02/2023

One of the most common questions disability attorneys hear from their clients is "Why is my SSDI/SSI disability taking so long?" Unfortunately, providing a definitive answer on how long the decision-making process will take or why a specific client's application ("claim") seems to be moving slowly is difficult.

Disability claims can be approved in as little as 30 days or can take as long as three years, but it's hard to predict how long an individual case will take. In our readers' survey on how long it took them to get approved for Social Security disability benefits, the average length of time from initial application—and multiple levels of appeal—to a final decision was 27 months.

"What's the Hold Up?": Factors That Can Make a Disability Decision Take Longer

When you first apply for disability benefits, your application will go to a claims examiner at your local Disability Determination Services (DDS). DDS is funded by the Social Security Administration to help handle disability claims, but the agency is run at the state level. Examiners at DDS decide your claim at the initial and reconsideration levels of review.

At each level, it will take DDS on average three to four months to make a decision as to whether you're disabled, but several factors can slow down the process:

  • Funding and staff shortages can contribute to backlogs at the office handling your disability claim. Some claims examiners might be juggling several hundred applications, while others have a more manageable workload.
  • Medical records are the foundation of each disability claim, and DDS needs all relevant records to make a decision. Getting them from doctors' offices can be like pulling teeth, however, and some providers are very slow to respond to records requests.
  • Complicated cases with multiple impairments are likely to take additional time than more cut-and-dried claims. If DDS thinks a case needs further development, they might request a consultative exam, which could delay a decision by several months.

In our survey, while almost 40% of our readers said they received an answer on their initial applications within three months, the same amount had to wait between four and eight months for an answer. We didn't ask readers how long their reconsideration took, but according to Social Security statistics, reconsideration takes on average about 180 days.

Why Do Disability Hearing Decisions Take So Long?

About half of all disability claimants who were denied after reconsideration go on to request an appeal hearing, where they have a greater chance of being approved for benefits. An appeal to an administrative law judge (ALJ) usually takes much longer because a hearing has to first be scheduled.

The time it takes to get your hearing scheduled depends on the number of cases pending at the hearing office and how many judges work in the office, which varies considerably by geographic area. Scheduling a hearing generally takes at least six months, but in some parts of the country, the wait can be as long as 18 months or even two years.

Even after you've scheduled and attended your disability hearing, you likely won't have a decision from the ALJ for six to eight weeks (or longer if the judge needs to get more medical evidence or schedules a supplemental hearing).

How to Get a Disability Decision Faster

It can be difficult not knowing when you'll get an answer from Social Security when you're out of work and experiencing tough financial circumstances while you wait for your disability case to be resolved.

One way to speed up getting a decision is to make sure you immediately request an appeal at each stage (reconsideration, ALJ hearing, and possibly the Appeals Council), rather than waiting until close to the 60-day deadline. This alone can shave four to six months off your wait time.

You should also make sure that you keep Social Security current on all medical treatment that you're receiving. While you might not be able to control how fast your doctors release your medical records, you can prevent Social Security from wasting time trying to update records from providers that you don't see anymore.

If you have a very severe illness with a clear diagnosis, you may be able to get a decision quickly through one of Social Security's expedited disability benefits programs:

  • The Quick Disability Determination program identifies straightforward and easily determined disability cases through a software program.
  • The Compassionate Allowances program is available for many cancers and some other illnesses that are easily diagnosed and assessed.
  • The Terminal Illness program, or TERI, is available for those with terminal illnesses or who are in hospice.
  • The Presumptive Disability program, for SSI only, gives applicants with certain conditions monthly SSI benefits even before their disability claim is approved or denied.

Finally, if you're waiting for a disability hearing and your attorney thinks you have a particularly strong case, you might want to submit an on-the-record request. If the ALJ approves your request, you can get a favorable decision sooner without having to attend the hearing.

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