What claimants should know about the initial application process for Social Security disability benefits


Ask anyone who has applied for Social Security Disability benefits (either disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income). They may tell you about a lengthy and frustrating process that required completing an in-depth application, filling out information forms for the Disability Determination Bureau (DDB), attending one or more examinations by a physician or psychologist hired by the Social Security Administration (SSA), keeping the DDB updated about new treatment appointments, emergency department visits and hospitalizations and then just waiting on a determination. Across the county, initial applications are approved about 30% of the time.

The processing times for initial applications increased significantly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, SSA offices were closed to the public (starting in March 2020).  SSA and DDB staff were working from remote locations.  Beginning around March 2022, SSA offices started to reopen.  Now processing times are much improved.  Depending on the medical complexity of the case, it normally takes, at a minimum, 90 to 120 days for SSA to reach a determination on an initial application.  (Of course, this is an estimate.  The processing time varies in each case.) Applications which are denied will have an opportunity to appeal the denial.

The importance of being thorough and on time

Attention to detail is important. This includes being thorough and on time.  It is possible for an initial claim to be summarily rejected because the Claimant did not tell SSA with whom he/she was treating.  Not timely completing and returning a form sent from DDB can cause the application to be decided with only the information currently in the file.  Not showing-up for a scheduled exam with a physician or psychologist hired by SSA may cause the application to be denied.  If the Claimant does not inform DDB of new medical appointments, emergency department visits or hospitalizations SSA will consider the application without that important evidence.

Specific strategies exist that can speed up the process and result in a better outcome include:

  • Cooperate with SSA and DDB
  • Update DDB with a complete listing of health care providers, emergency department visits and hospitals recently seen, including addresses and appointment date
  • Attend all scheduled examinations with SSA’s physicians and psychologists on time
  • Timely respond to DDB’s request for additional documentation or proof

In the end, applying for Social Security disability benefits is a legal matter.  SSA, by regulation, places the “burden of proof” on the Claimant to show that he/she is disabled.  An attorney with knowledge and experience in the Social Security disability area should be able to assist a Claimant through the process.

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