It can take a long time to receive Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income benefits if you aren't approved on your initial application. In fact, if you have to appeal multiple times the process can take years. Here's a break down of what you can expect at each level. Keep in mind that these are only estimates and you may receive a decision faster or slower depending on a number of factors including the complexity of your case, medical record collection and the hearing office location wait times. Average wait times can also change.
Initial Application: Once you apply for Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income you can expect to receive the Initial Determination in about 3 - 4 months. But you could receive a determination in as little as 30 days or as long as 6 months.
Reconsideration: If you are denied at the Initial Level you will have 60 days to appeal. The decision on Reconsideration takes about as long as the Initial Determination and you can expect to wait about 4 months.
Administrative Law Judge Hearing (ALJ): If you are denied at the Reconsideration level you will have 60 days to appeal. Wait times for a hearing before a judge greatly vary depending on your location. Each Office of Disability Adjudication and Review has different average wait times depending on the number of cases and judges. Currently the average wait time at Sacramento ODAR is 16 months. Once you have your hearing the judge will typically issue her decision in 60 days. However, this is not a hard deadline. It's not unheard of for it to take 6 months to receive the judge's decision.
Appeals Council: At this point, you may be 2 years from the point you applied for disability benefits! If you are denied at the ALJ hearing level, it is a good idea to talk to your attorney regarding whether you have the option of reapplying for benefits or if you should continue appealing. If you appeal the judge's determination to the Appeals Council you can expect to wait another 12 - 18 months to receive their decision. In many cases the Appeals Council decides to remand (send back) the case to the Administrative Law Judge. The Appeals Council can also refuse to review the matter, in which case you will need to file in Federal District Court, or approve or deny the case.