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 November 2021 took, on average, a little less than nine months 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.
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. In recent years, the processing times for disability reconsiderations has averaged three to four months.
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 the most recent SSA data available, the average for individual hearing offices ranges from 5 to 15 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.
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Wait times coming down
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 1,350 judges have to review the increasingly voluminous paperwork in the case files.
According to a June 2021 report by the federal Government Accountability Office, 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, thanks in part to additional funding from Congress to pay for improvements such as better information technology.
While the backlog is still sizable — more than 350,000 cases awaiting hearings at the end of the 2021 federal fiscal year — that’s down from 1.1 million five years earlier. The national average wait time for a hearing has dropped by more than half since September 2017, when it was 19 months.
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.
- Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security hearing centers largely are closed to the public, and ALJs are hearing cases remotely by telephone and online video. The agency said in late 2021 that it would begin scheduling in-person hearings on a limited basis for "priority cases." 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.
Updated December 30, 2021