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How long will I wait for a Social Security disability hearing?​

If you disagree with a decision by the Social Security Administration (SSA) on a claim for disability benefits, you have the right to appeal. In most cases, that will involve a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), but it can be a long, arduous process involving multiple steps.

Cases heard by ALJs in October 2022 took nearly 13 months on average to reach that stage, counting from the date the hearing application was filed, according to SSA data. That’s a national figure; depending on which of Social Security’s 168 regional hearing offices handles your case, it can take several months longer or be several months quicker.

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And that’s just counting the time from a request for a hearing to the proceeding itself. An ALJ hearing is the second step in a disability appeal, and it can take several months to get to that phase.

In most circumstances you must first ask for a reconsideration by your state’s Disability Determination Services, the same office that handled your initial application. A different disability examiner and medical team takes a fresh look at your claim and any additional evidence you want to present, such as recent medical treatment or exams. You have 60 days after an initial denial to file for reconsideration.

It takes six to seven months on average to get an initial decision on a Social Security disability application, and the average processing time for a reconsideration is around five months, according to the latest SSA data available on these proceedings.

If the reconsideration goes against you, as occurs in most cases, you have 60 days to request a hearing before an administrative law judge, who will review the evidence and may also listen to your testimony and that of expert witnesses.

Once you file for a hearing, the wait time can vary enormously based on the particulars of your case and where you live. According to SSA data, the average for individual hearing offices in October 2022 ranged from 8 to 24 months. Waits have increased considerably in the past year; in October 2021, the range among field offices was 5 to 16 months and the national average was nine months.

Social Security is required to send you written notice of a scheduled hearing date at least 75 days in advance. You can waive this notice, which may reduce your wait time, but you will still be bound by SSA rules on submitting any evidence for your claim ahead of your hearing.

Backlog shrinking

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One reason it can take so long is that Social Security receives hundreds of thousands of requests for hearings each year, and before cases can be heard, the appeals system’s approximately 1,200 judges have to review the increasingly voluminous paperwork in the case files.

According to a June 2021 report by the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO), many judges struggle to keep up with the system’s expectation that they’ll make at least 500 decisions a year. The wait time in a particular office is affected by the volume of cases it gets, though Social Security says it’s trying to even out the workload nationally.

On the plus side, the SSA has considerably reduced both the case backlog and the waiting period in recent years, due in part to additional funding from Congress to pay for improvements such as better information technology but also to a drop in requests for hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to reports by GAO and Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General.

While the backlog is still sizable — there were nearly 340,000 cases awaiting hearings at the end of the 2022 federal fiscal year — that’s down from 1.1 million five years earlier. The national average wait time dropped by more than half, from 19 months in 2017 to nine months in 2021, before climbing back over the one-year mark in 2022.

Keep in mind

  • If you lack the resources to get food, shelter or medicine while awaiting a disability hearing, you may submit a “dire need” letter to Social Security seeking expedited treatment. Evidence such as an eviction notice or copies of medical bills can help you make the case.
  • During the pandemic Social Security closed its hearing centers and switched to remote proceedings, with ALJs hearing cases by telephone and online video. Hearing offices reopened in March 2022, but the remote alternatives remain available. The SSA website has details on hearing options.
  • Disability claimants win around half the time at the hearing stage. If you lose, the next step is to take your case to a Social Security Appeals Council, which can review the ALJ’s decision.

Long Delays for a Social Security Disability Hearing

The average time from a hearing request for Social Security disability benefits to the hearing day was the longest at these five offices in July 2023.

  • Savannah, Georgia: 32.5 months
  • Richmond, Virginia: 28 months
  • Baltimore, Maryland: 27 months
  • Nashville, Tennessee: 26 months
  • Greenville, South Carolina: 24.5 months

Source: Social Security Administration 

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