If you're thinking of applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—or you've already applied—you may have heard that it takes a long time to find out if you'll receive benefits. But how long? We surveyed readers across the U.S. who recently went through the application process for SSDI or SSI. Here's what we learned about how long they had to wait at different stages in the process.
After you turn in your application for SSDI or SSI, a disability examiner will make an initial decision on whether you qualify for benefits. The amount of time it takes to get that decision can vary considerably. Still, nearly two-thirds (62%) of readers received a decision within six months after they filed their applications. Nearly four in ten (37%) got an answer within three months, while a similar number (38%) had to wait longer than six months. Government data says that the average time for the initial disability decision is three and a half months.
If Social Security initially denies your application based on medical eligibility for disability benefits (as opposed to a technical disability denial), you can appeal that decision by requesting a hearing. Although you'll have a greater chance of getting benefits after a disability hearing, you'll have to wait longer for that opportunity—often much longer.
Before you can get to a disability hearing, you need to go through a reconsideration review with a disability examiner. This step is essentially a formality, since most reconsiderations are denied. But it adds time. According to government data, the reconsideration process took an average of 109 days (more than three months) in 2019. The amount of time it could take in your case depends on several factors, including the backlog in your area, whether you have new medical records that the examiner needs to get, and whether your case involves special circumstances.
Unfortunately, applicants often have to wait a long time before they can present their case to a disability judge. Our survey showed that more than four in ten readers (44%) waited between one and two years to get a hearing date, while a similar number (42%) waited a year or less. The overall average wait time was 15.3 months.
Once applicants get to a hearing, they have to wait again for the judge's decision. But this time the wait isn't as long. Four in ten readers got an answer within a month, and about the same number heard within one to three months. The average time to receive a decision was about two months, but nearly two in ten (19%) waited more than three months.
It's important to point out that our survey included readers who had completed the process in 2017 or earlier. More recent statistics from from the government indicate that Social Security has made significant headway in reducing the hearing backlog. By October 2020, the average wait time for a hearing was about 10 months.
We also asked readers who went to a hearing how long the entire process took them, from when they filed their initial application until they received a decision after the hearing. More than a third (35%) said it took between two and three years, while nearly a quarter (24%) told us it took more than three years. The overall average was 27 months.
Several different factors can affect how long it will take for you to get a final decision on your SSDI or SSI application, especially if you request a hearing after an initial denial.
From the time it takes a disability examiner to review your application through the time it takes to get a hearing date, case backlogs are responsible for most of the delays. So the amount of time it will take you to get through the process—especially the time you wait for a hearing date—may largely depend on where you live. Government statistics show that the time to get a hearing date varies widely across the country. As of October 2020, average waits ranged from six to 16 months in different hearing offices (down from a range of nine to 25 months in 2018). Cities with shorter wait times included Houston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, while some of the longest waits were in Albuquerque, Reno, and Phoenix.
Naturally, the specifics of your case—including the amount of time it takes to obtain necessary medical evidence—could affect how long you have to wait for a decision after your application or after a hearing. And depending on the severity of your illness and your diagnosis, you may be able to get an expedited decision through Social Security's Quick Disability Determination program, Compassionate Allowance program, or Terminal Illness program. Some SSI applicants may receive benefits before their claim is approved or denied through the Presumptive Disability program.
Readers who applied for both SSDI and SSI waited somewhat longer, on average, to receive decisions than those who applied under one program (about a month longer for initial decisions and two weeks longer for decisions after a hearing). This makes sense, because these "concurrent" applications are more complex and therefore probably take longer to review; they may also require more bureaucratic coordination between different offices. (Learn more about our survey results on SSDI and concurrent applications.)
Our survey results didn't show a significant difference in the amount of time it took to get an initial approval or denial after filing a disability application. But there did appear to be a difference in how long it took to get an approval or denial after a hearing. Those who were approved for benefits after a hearing waited an average of about seven weeks for the decision, while those who were denied waited almost ten weeks, on average. This makes sense, because written decisions for denials of benefits need to be more detailed (to stand up to further appeal); as a result, they can take longer to write.
If a disability judge denies SSDI or SSI benefits after a hearing, applicants can seek further review with the Social Security Appeals Council (which takes about a year on average) and, after that, an appeal in federal court. Taking both these steps could add years to the process.
Finally, we asked readers who were approved for SSI how long it took them to receive their first benefits check after their applications were approved. This was a relatively small group in our overall survey, but nearly two-thirds (65%) said that they got the check within two months or less.
The biggest take-away from these survey results is that you should be prepared for a long wait if you're applying for SSDI or SSI. Whether it's worth the wait depends, of course, on whether or not you get benefits at the end of the process. To learn what our survey showed about your chances of success, see our articles on who's most likely to be approved for Social Security disability benefits and how a disability lawyer affects SSDI/SSI outcomes.