A Roadmap to Navigating The Social Security Disability Process

By: James M. DuBach

The Social Security Disability Process can be a lengthy and somewhat confusing process. It is our hope that this article with give you some idea of the steps to getting your disability. Hopefully this will help you make sense of what we tell you when you call our office for updates.

Initial Level: The initial level is the beginning of the process. You have not been denied yet. Most people have not yet hired a lawyer.

  • What you do: At the initial level you begin your case by applying for benefits. You fill out a lengthy form telling the Social Security Administration about yourself and your disabilities. You sign releases authorizing them to obtain your medical records. You should cooperate fully with any requests they make of you. You should attend all doctors’ appointments they set up for you. You should fill out any forms they send you.
  • What Social Security does: At this level, Social Security is responsible for obtaining your medical records. Sometimes they will ask you to obtain them, but usually they request them from the doctors. They may set up appointments for you to see their doctors for various tests and evaluations. They may send paperwork to you asking what sorts of things you do in a typical day and how your disability affects your day-to-day functioning. They may also send paperwork to your family and friends for them to fill out about how they see your disability affecting you.
  • What we do: Most people come to us after having already been denied at this stage. However, some do come to us before applying or while their case is still pending at this level. If that is the case we begin by sending representation paperwork to Social Security so they know we represent you. We then serve as an additional point of contact. If you are confused by what you are hearing from Social Security you can feel free to contact us and we will do our best to figure out what’s going on and explain it to you. Likewise if Social Security is unable to contact you or has questions, they can contact us about your case. Most importantly, if you are denied at this level, we are ready and waiting to get started on the appeal immediately.
  • Time to completion: On average, we see it take 3-6 months at this level. If it has been longer than that and you have not heard anything from Social Security in the last month, call us so we can make sure your claim is still pending.

Reconsideration Level: Once you are denied at the Initial Level, we appeal your case to the reconsideration level. This level is very similar to the Initial Level. It is a chance for a different reviewer to look at the evidence and see if they can come to a different decision.

  • What you do: Fill out any forms we send you and return them to our office promptly. Fill out any forms Social Security sends you and return them to them promptly. Cooperate fully with any requests they make of you.
  • What Social Security does: They will review all the evidence in the file. They will review the forms you fill out asking for reconsideration. If you have had medical treatment since you first applied they will attempt to get those records. They may send you and your family and friends additional forms to fill out. They may send you to their doctors for additional tests.
  • What we do: We make sure the appeal is filed before the deadline. We send you the proper forms and make sure they are sent to Social Security. We serve as an additional point of contact for you and for Social Security. We stand ready to appeal your case to the hearings level if necessary.
  • Time to completion: On average, we see it take 3-6 months at this level. If it has been longer than that and you have not heard anything from Social Security in the last month, call us so we can make sure your claim is still pending.

Hearings Level: If you are denied at both the initial level and the reconsideration level, the next step is to request your hearing. This is where the lengthy wait comes. It is also where we have an opportunity to try to get a decision on the record. In vary rare circumstances, we can also request an expedited hearing; request that you be moved to the front of the line. However, there are very rare and specific circumstances for that.

  • What you do: Mostly, at this point, you wait. It is important that you continue to visit your doctor and comply with all instructions your doctor gives you. Let us know if anything changes; if you move or change your phone number, if you see a doctor you haven’t seen before, if you are diagnosed with something new or if your existing medical conditions worsen. If you have a condition where you have good days and bad days, or where your symptoms come and go (such as epilepsy or migraine headaches), keep a symptom diary or journal of how frequently the symptoms occur and how severe they are. If we or Social Security send you forms make sure you fill them out and return them promptly. If we call you, return our call. Mostly though, keep us informed of your condition, and be patient.
  • What Social Security does: They will send a letter acknowledging the hearing request. They will contact us when they are ready to schedule your hearing. They will send us a barcode so we can submit evidence. They will assign your case to a reviewer for a final review before they schedule the hearing. They will contact us if they need anything.
  • What we do: We periodically review cases to see if they are suitable for on the record attempts. If Social Security lets us know that your case is being reviewed we order your medical records and may contact you for additional information. When your hearing is scheduled, we assign an attorney from our office to handle your hearing. We order all your medical records, contact you to verify that we’re ordering from everyplace you’ve been, order a copy of Social Security’s file, send forms to you and your doctors for them to fill out, and generally make sure we have all the evidence gathered up. We try to have you come into our office for a preparation appointment a little more than a month before the hearing. At that appointment you watch a video and you and the attorney discuss strategy for the hearing and go over the evidence.
  • Time to get a hearing: The wait to get a hearing has decreased somewhat. Currently in Indianapolis, the wait is 579 days from the day the hearings office receives the request for a hearing (slightly more than 1 ½ years).

At the hearing: The attorney accompanies you to the hearing. They

After the hearing: After the hearing it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to get your decision.