If you receive a bench decision after your disability hearing for either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), that means the administrative law judge (ALJ) has approved you for benefits without the need for any additional deliberation.
There are only certain circumstances in which an ALJ can make a bench decision, and only a small percentage of cases conclude that way. The decision must be fully favorable, which means that the ALJ must agree with the alleged onset date in your claim. The decision must also pertain to an adult disability case, and there cannot be any documented drug or alcohol problems. The ALJ must verbally state at the hearing why he or she is making the decision to approve you for benefits, and the subsequent award letter that you receive cannot contradict those reasons.
If you receive a bench decision, that’s great news! It does not mean, however, that your benefits will start immediately after the hearing. The official decision still needs to be put in writing, and you cannot receive monthly benefit payments until you receive the final award letter.
After the ALJ announces his or her decision to approve your disability claim at your hearing, the actual writing of the decision is given to a separate decision-writer. The decision-writer will compose a notice of decision and award letter that explains the ALJ’s reasons for awarding you benefits; the ALJ subsequently reads the letter and approves it. Then it is sent to you from your local Social Security office approximately 1-2 months after your hearing.
The length of time that it takes for you to get your decision letter depends on your ALJ’s workload and the efficiency of his or her decision-writing staff. If your case is more complicated, the decision-writer will have to spend more time drafting the rationale behind your approval in the letter. The ALJ does not have to adhere to any deadline to complete the process, so if he or she is managing a large caseload, it could take a while for him or her to review your letter and sign off on it.
The notice of decision and award letter will let you know the amount of your monthly benefits payments, the date from which you are entitled to collect payments, the amount of back pay you are owed (if applicable), the date on which your benefits will start, the taxability of your benefits payments, and the amount you owe your representative (if applicable).
Once you have received your award letter, you still may not receive your first monthly payment for another 3 weeks to 2 months from the date of the letter. Approved claims are sent to a central payment center where a benefits authorizer will double-check the amounts before you receive any payments.
Although there is no way to guarantee a bench decision, an experienced disability attorney can prepare a comprehensive memo or brief prior to the hearing so that the ALJ is already familiar with the facts of your case before the hearing, which will make rendering a decision easier for the ALJ.