Understand Social Security’s Decision

Social Security usually takes three to four months to decide on your application. If they decide you have a disability, low income, and low resources, you may qualify for SSI.

After looking at your application, Social Security will send you an award letter or a denial letter. These letters can be confusing. If you have questions, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY).

If you disagree with Social Security’s decision, you can file an appeal.

Understanding an Award Letter

An award letter should tell you:

  • How much you’ll get in SSI benefits each month
  • When the benefits will be paid
  • How much you’ll get in retroactive (past) benefits, based on the date you applied for SSI
  • When Social Security will review your medical condition again — usually three to seven years after you start getting benefits

After you get your award letter, your SSI benefits will go into your bank account automatically each month. If you don’t have a bank account, you can have your SSI benefits put onto a Direct Express debit card that you can use in stores to make purchases.

Understanding a Denial Letter

A denial letter should tell you why your SSI application was turned down. The most common reasons are:

  • You didn’t present enough medical documentation of your health condition or Social Security doesn’t think your medical condition is bad enough to keep you from working.
    • If the letter says your doctor, psychiatrist, or school did not send records they were supposed to send, you can get these reports and submit them yourself when you file an appeal.
  • You have more resources than the $2,000 limit ($3,000 for couples).
  • Your total countable income is too high for you to qualify for SSI.
  • You have more earned income than the Substantial Gainful Activity level of $1,220 per month.

Note: When you apply for SSI, Social Security will also check to see if you qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If you get an SSDI denial letter, it does not mean you’ve been turned down for SSI benefits. Read the letter carefully — an actual SSI denial letter will say “Supplemental Security Income” at the top.

Filing an Appeal

If you feel that Social Security’s decision is incorrect, you can file an appeal:

  • File your appeal quickly. After you get a denial letter, you have 60 days to file an appeal. If you don’t appeal within 60 days, you may not be able to appeal.
    • If you were already on SSI and are appealing a change in your benefits amount or an overpayment notice, appeal within 10 days. If you do, you might keep getting your original SSI benefits amount until Social Security decides on your appeal.
    • Note: Social Security figures that you get a letter within five days after they sent it.
  • You can file your appeal online or call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 (TTY) and ask them to send you an SSI appeal form. If you file online, you will need to mail or deliver any new information about your situation to Social Security.
  • You have the right to have a lawyer or other qualified person (familiar with you and with the SSI program) represent you during the appeal process. Or you may choose to do it yourself.

Note: If your application for SSI benefits is denied and you disagree with the decision, file an appeal. Do not just fill out the application forms again — that would be refiling. If you appeal and win, your benefits will be paid back to your original application date. If you refile, Social Security will start all over and you will not get any past benefits you might have gotten.

The appeal process

There are four levels to the appeal process. If you are not satisfied with the result at each level, you can appeal to the next. The four levels are:

  1. Reconsideration: A person at Social Security who wasn’t involved in the first decision looks at your application. This is a paper appeal, so you don’t have to go in front of a judge. Give Social Security any new information you have about your case.
  2. Hearing: If the reconsideration is denied, you can ask for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. You can bring witnesses to help make your case. Consider having an attorney or representative help you.
  3. Appeals Council: Social Security’s Appeals Council will review your case if you appeal the Administrative Law Judge’s decision. The Council can accept the judge’s decision, decide the case for itself, or send it back to a different Administrative Law Judge for another hearing.
  4. Federal Court: If the Appeals Council decides against you, you can file a lawsuit in federal court.

For any level beyond the reconsideration, you may want to get help from a lawyer. Contact the Arizona Center for Disability Law for help with appeals.