After you've attended your disability hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), your disability file will remain at the hearings office (the Office of Hearings Operations, or OHO) until the ALJ makes his or her decision. Once the administrative law judge has made his or her decision, the decision is actually written by staff decision writers at the hearing office and then reviewed by the judge. When the judge is ready to issue the decision, your disability file may be sent to the Social Security office from where it originated.
Denials. If your disability claim was denied, your file will usually be held at OHO (formerly known as ODAR) in case you appeal. You will be sent a notice of denial and instructions on how to appeal (see below).
Approvals. If your disability claim was approved, a Social Security representative at the district office will check to see if you have been working above the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level since you filed your claim. If you have done what's considered substantially gainful work (generally, this means making more than $1,310 per month in 2021), your claim might be denied, depending on the circumstances. To learn when your claim would be denied in this case, see our article on working in between applying for disability benefits and getting approved.
Notice of Award. If the Social Security representative at the district office doesn't find anything wrong with your eligibility, you will be sent a Notice of Award letter telling you whether the judge gave you a fully favorable or partially favorable decision. (Both are approvals; the difference between fully favorable and partially favorable decisions is whether the judge agreed with your alleged onset date. If the judge changes your onset date, this can change the amount of your backpay.)
The Notice of Award letter will explain in detail how much your benefits will be as well as when these benefits can be expected to arrive. How long after the hearing can you expect to get a decision? The answer varies depending on where in the country you live and how backlogged your regional office is. (For more information, see our article on how long it takes for an ALJ's decision.)
Getting Paid. If you were approved only for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), your file will then be sent to a payment processing center and you should start to receive payments within a month (assuming the judge agreed your onset date is more than five months before the approval date).
If you were approved for SSI, your file stays at the district office. A field rep will contact you to ask about any income you've received since you've applied for disability, including in-kind income, to see if your payments for those months should be decreased. The representative will also ask about bank accounts and other government benefits (such as unemployment or workers' comp), to make sure that your resources are still below the limits for SSI eligibility. If you are still eligible for SSI, you should start to receive payments within a couple of months.
If you were approved for SSI and SSDI, the district office still performs the above checks, but the payment processing center will handle your SSDI. There may be a delay in getting your back payments, since the district office must work with the payment center in making complicated calculations about your backpay.
If you disagree with the judge's decision—that is, you were denied benefits or you disagree with the disability onset date the judge gave you—you can appeal to the Appeals Council. The Notice of Award letter gives you the deadline for appealing an ALJ decision: 60 days after you receive the hearing notice.
You can request an appeal by writing to the SSA and requesting an Appeals Council review or by completing Form HA–520 (Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order).
Is it worth it to appeal one more time? It may help you decide your next steps to read more about your chances of winning an Appeals Council review. Or, talk to a disability lawyer. (Note that you can no longer have an Appeals Council review and a new disability application open at the same time.)
Updated February 10, 2021