After you've attended your disability hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), your disability file will remain at the hearing office (the Office of Hearings Operations, or OHO) until the ALJ makes a decision. Once the ALJ has made a decision, staff decision writers at the disability hearing office will actually write the decision, and the judge will review it. When the judge is ready to issue the decision, your disability file, with the written decision, will be sent to your Social Security office.
What happens next depends on whether the judge decides to award or deny you benefits.
If the judge denies your claim after the disability hearing, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will send you a notice of denial and instructions on how to appeal (see below). The notice will be titled "Notice of Decision-Unfavorable." Your file will be held at OHO (formerly known as ODAR) in case you appeal.
If your disability claim was approved, a Social Security representative at the district office will check to see if you've been working above the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level since you filed your claim. If you've done what's considered substantially gainful work (generally, this means making more than $1,470 per month in 2023), your claim might be denied, depending on the circumstances. To learn when your claim could be denied for working over the SGA limit, 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, Social Security will send you a Notice of Award letter explaining in detail how much your benefits will be and when you can expect these benefits to arrive. Here's an example Notice of Award letter.
Notice of Decision. You'll also receive a letter from the hearing office 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 disability onset date. If the judge changes your onset date, you could receive less backpay.)
How long after the disability 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 to receive an ALJ's decision.)
Unless the ALJ issues a bench decision (the judge tells you during the hearing that your case will be approved), it can be difficult to guess with 100% certainty what decision the judge will make. But there may be certain signs that indicate your disability hearing went well.
Short hearings and quick testimony from experts can mean that you had a good disability hearing.
Very short hearing. The hearing office schedules hearings in 45- and 60-minute increments, but hearings don't always take that amount of time. It's not uncommon for disability hearings to last only 30 minutes; some judges and disability applicants are just able to cover information more quickly than others. But if your hearing lasts only 5-15 minutes, this may be an indicator that your hearing went well. Generally, when a hearing is so short, it means the judge didn't have many questions for you. You probably have solid medical records that show a severe medical impairment. In that case, the judge typically just needed to clarify information about your work history and ask a few questions of the vocational expert.
Short vocational testimony. A vocational expert is an independent job specialist who contracts with Social Security to answer the judge's questions about jobs. If the ALJ asks the vocational expert only one question and the vocational expert says that you can't do your past work and there aren't other jobs available, the judge will very likely approve you for Social Security disability benefits.
Short medical expert testimony. Social Security uses a disability evaluation handbook that outlines the disability criteria that are specific to certain medical conditions. These criteria are called "listings." If a medical expert says that you "meet a listing," it means the medical expert found all of the criteria for disability in your medical records, in which case, you will very likely be awarded Social Security disability benefits.
Other than the three situations above, it can be really hard to get an idea of what the judge thinks. Applicants will try to read meaning into a judge's behavior at the hearing, but they're more often wrong than not. But if your lawyer is familiar with your ALJ, they might have a pretty good idea of how your case will turn out.
But taken alone, none of the following situations are signs that you won or lost your hearing.
The judge asked a lot of questions. Usually, the number of questions the judge asks doesn't sway the decision one way or another. Oftentimes judges ask a lot of questions because they want to get a clear understanding of the timeline and treatment history of your medical condition and your work history.
My judge was really nice or really harsh. The judge's demeanor doesn't shed light on how the judge will decide your case. Judges are people too, with their own personalities. Some judges appear very warm and welcoming, while others are very "straight-to-business." Neither personality makes a judge more or less likely to approve a case. Judges, regardless of their mood or personality, apply Social Security's rules to the facts of your case to make a decision.
My decision is taking a long time to come. The length of time it takes to receive the judge's decision in the mail is not an indicator of approval or denial.
Usually, an ALJ is able to make a decision after your hearing, but in some instances, the judge might need more information before being able to make a decision. In that case, the judge might schedule another hearing, called a supplemental hearing, to review more information. The supplemental hearing may not last as long as the first hearing because the judge doesn't need to repeat the same information that was covered in the first hearing.
A judge might schedule a supplemental hearing for several reasons, including:
Missing medical evidence. If the ALJ didn't receive all of your medical records before the hearing, the judge may schedule a supplemental hearing to review them, especially if a lot of records are missing. The hearing office might not receive your medical records before the initial hearing for several reasons. The most common reason is that medical facilities are notoriously slow at releasing records. Sometimes they have special requirements for releasing records that are poorly communicated to the person or organization requesting the medical records. The applicant might not have signed an authorization to release medical records, which most facilities require. Other times, medical records may be missing because you didn't include all of your past treating doctors and facilities, and their correct contact information, on the application.
Consultative examination. Sometimes the hearing office has received all of the medical records, but the judge still wants more medical evidence before making a decision. When that happens, the judge will order a consultative examination (CE), which is an appointment with an independent doctor who is contracted to perform services for Social Security—either a medical doctor or a psychologist. The health professional will examine you and provide a summary of the examination to the judge.
Medical expert. A medical expert is either a physician or mental health professional who contracts with Social Security to provide medical information. Sometimes a judge will call for a medical expert at the initial disability hearing to provide an opinion about a disability applicant's medical condition and the limitations the condition is expected to cause. But medical experts aren't called at every hearing. If a judge realizes after the hearing that the case includes a very difficult medical issue or conflicting medical records, or the judge is having trouble deciding when the medical condition became disabling, the judge might schedule a supplemental hearing to hear from a medical expert.
Supplemental hearings tend to help disability applicants' chances of approval. A second hearing is another opportunity to present evidence to the judge and explain why your medical conditions prevent you from performing any work activity.
Yes, generally, if your ALJ schedules a supplemental hearing for your case, it will increase the length of time it takes to receive the judge's decision. The judge won't be able to issue a decision until after the supplemental hearing takes place.
If you disagree with the judge's decision—either the judge denied you benefits or you disagree with the disability onset date the judge gave you—you can appeal to the Appeals Council. The Notice of Denial or Notice of Award letter will give 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 or advocate. (Note that you can no longer have an Appeals Council review and a new disability application open at the same time.)
When you receive your Notice of Award from Social Security, it will have a section called "What We Will Pay You and When" with the date you can expect your monthly disability benefits to start and your back pay.
Once a Social Security disability claim has been approved and the award letter has been issued, payment is in the hands of a payment center. You should start to receive payments within one to two months (assuming the judge agreed that your onset date is more than five months before the approval date).
If Social Security approved you for SSI, your file will stay 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 SSI payments for those months should be decreased. The representative will also ask you 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're still eligible for SSI, you should start to receive payments within a couple of months. SSI payments usually take longer to start than SSDI payments.
If you were approved for both SSI and SSDI, the district office still performs the above checks, but the payment processing center will handle your SSDI checks. Your back payments may be delayed a bit because the district office must work with the payment center in making complicated calculations about your backpay.
Updated January 4, 2023