One of the most common questions asked by client’s applying for Social Security benefits is how long the process will take. They have heard stories of it taking years for a claim to be resolved. They have also been told that your always denied initially. Both of these “rumors” have some validity to them. The Social Security Disability process can take a very long time and nationwide the denial rate at the initial level is well over 50%. While there is a greater chance of denial at these levels, it does not mean that your case will automatically be denied. There are many things you can do to help increase your chances of being approved at this level, including hiring an attorney. An attorney can help you in filing a more complete application, preserve consistency in multiple follow-up forms, and getting important medical records faster to the decision makers.
The biggest factor in how fast your case may take is where you live. Some areas of the country process SSA disability claims faster than others. In generally, a claimant can expect a decision on the initial application in about 6 months. For reconsideration, 6 months, and the wait for a hearing averages about 12-24 months. Some hearing offices will hear cases within 6 months and some longer then 24 months. If you are at the hearing level and have not yet sought representation do not wait until your hearing is scheduled to hire one. Seeking representation early in the process gives the attorney the opportunity to gather your medical records, obtain statement’s from your doctor, and file any needed motions or briefs prior to your hearing. In some cases, your attorney may be able to obtain benefits for you without the need for a hearing, but only if you have brought an attorney into the case sooner rather than later. Many times decisions are made at the initial and reconsideration levels before critical medical records have made it to your Social Security file. Sometimes, Social Security simply makes a mistake in their findings. An experienced attorney is on the lookout for these types of errors or omissions and knows what to do when they happen.
Only SSA can tell you exactly what your disability amount will be. Social Security has now ceased to send to each of us an update every 1-3 years that listed your benefit amounts. But, your benefit amounts are based on your earnings record. Thus, the more you have worked and the more FICA taxes you have paid, the higher your benefit will be. In general, your disability amount is around the same amount as your early retirement amount. Which is usually 50-75% of your full retirement amount. This is why it is important for you or your attorney to review your earnings record to search for mistakes or omissions. Further, winning your disability case will help preserve your retirement funds. A finding of disability freezes your earn records so you are not penalized for a lack of earnings during any months in which you were found to be disabled, both retroactive and future.
One of the other important benefits from a finding of disability is eligibility for Medicare. You become eligible for Medicare after you have received 24 months of disability payments. This is 29 months after the date that Social Security determined you became disabled (You have a 5 month waiting period from the date you determined by SSA that you became disabled to receive your first benefit). You may also be eligible for Medicare early if you are on kidney dialysis or diagnosed with ALS.
One last note, as long as you remain eligible for disability benefits, you can receive them up to your full retirement age, at which time SSA will then switch you to your full retirement benefit