Most Social Security Administration (SSA) disability claims are initially processed through a network of local SSA field offices and State agencies (usually called Disability Determination Services or DDSs). Subsequent appeals of unfavorable determinations may be decided in a DDS or by an administrative law judge in SSA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals.
Social Security representatives in the field offices usually obtain applications for disability benefits in person, by telephone, by mail, or by filing online. The application and related forms ask for a description of the claimant’s impairment(s), treatment sources, and other information that relates to the alleged disability. (The "claimant" is the person who is requesting disability benefits.)
The field office is responsible for verifying non-medical eligibility requirements, which may include age, employment, marital status, or Social Security coverage information. The field office then sends the case to a DDS for evaluation of disability.
The DDSs, which are fully funded by the Federal Government, are State agencies responsible for developing medical evidence and rendering the initial determination on whether or not a claimant is disabled or blind under the law.
Usually, the DDS tries to obtain evidence from the claimant’s own medical sources first. If that evidence is unavailable or insufficient to make a determination, the DDS will arrange for a Consultative Examination (CE) to obtain the additional information needed. The claimant’s treating source is the preferred source for the CE, but the DDS may obtain the CE from an independent source. After completing its development of the evidence, trained staff at the DDS makes the initial disability determination and decides if the claimant is a candidate for Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). If so, the DDS makes a referral to the State VR agency.
Then, the DDS returns the case to the field office for appropriate action. If the DDS found that the claimant is disabled, SSA completes any outstanding non-disability development, computes the benefit amount, and begins paying benefits. If the claimant was found not to be disabled, the file is kept in the field office in case the claimant decides to appeal the determination.
If the claimant files an appeal of an initial unfavorable determination, the appeal is usually handled much the same as the initial claim, except that the disability determination is made by a different adjudicative team in the DDS than the one that handled the original case.
Claimants dissatisfied with the first appeal of a determination may file subsequent appeals. The second appeal is processed by a Hearing Office within SSA's Office of Hearings and Appeals. An administrative law judge makes the second appeal decision, usually after conducting a hearing and receiving any additional evidence from the claimant's medical sources or other sources.
Medical development by the Office of Hearings and Appeals is frequently conducted through the DDS. However, hearing offices may also contact medical sources directly. In rare circumstances, an administrative law judge may issue a subpoena requiring production of evidence or testimony at a hearing.
SSI/DI Application Information
Flow Of Cases Through The SSA Disability Process
SSA Appeals Process
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