Rise and Fall in Cases Pending an Administrative Law Judge Hearing: New Actuarial Study

May 24, 2018 • By

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Last Updated: May 24, 2018

laptop and a judge gavelThe “great recession” that began at the end of 2007 contributed to a rise in initial applications for Social Security disability benefits that peaked in 2010. This surge in initial applications led to a similar rise in appeals for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Because the surge in appeals for a hearing exceeded the capacity to complete hearings quickly, the number of cases that had appealed but were still pending an ALJ determination rose. In fact, the number of disability applicants with an ALJ hearing pending rose up to the end of 2016. However, with the improving economy, declining appeals, hiring more judges, additional funding provided by the Congress to address the hearings backlog in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, and implementation of the Compassionate and Responsive Service (CARES) plan, the number of cases pending an ALJ hearing declined in 2017, and is continuing to decline today.

As the number of claimants pending an ALJ determination rose through 2016, so too did the number of these applicants who died while waiting rise. But with the number of applicants pending a hearing declining in 2017, so too did the number who died while waiting begin to drop. With continued low unemployment, and declining numbers of applicants and appeals to ALJs, we expect the numbers of applicants pending a hearing will continue to drop, as will the number of deaths among those waiting for an ALJ hearing.

In Actuarial Note 159, “Probability of Death While Pending an Administrative Law Judge Determination,” that we are releasing today, we provide the number of applicants pending an ALJ determination and the number of these individuals who died while waiting for each year 2006 through 2017. We also provide the death rate among those pending an ALJ determination on an age-sex adjusted basis, and show that this death rate has changed little, declining slightly over these years.

Finally, we compare the death rate among disability applicants pending an ALJ determination to the death rate of individuals at the same age and sex in the general population, and to the death rate of those individuals who have been determined to be disabled and are in their first 2 years of benefit entitlement. As a consequence of the strict requirements for severe medically determinable impairments, applicants for Social Security disability benefits tend to have higher death rates than the average persons in our population at the same age and sex. While the death rate for applicants pending an ALJ determination is two to three times as high as that for the general population, it is only about one-fourth as high as the death rate for workers who have been awarded disabled worker benefits, in their first two years of benefit entitlement.

Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary evaluates trends in demographic, economic, and programmatic experience, including mortality rates, and publishes a variety of regular reports and special studies. The main Social Security Administration website provides links to information about Social Security’s disability benefits programs, including a wealth of information to help you secure today and tomorrow.

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About the Author

Stephen C. Goss, Chief Actuary

Stephen C. Goss, Chief Actuary


  1. Kathy M.

    My son was awarded for 2 years that he was totally unemployed from some of the side effects of the meds he is on for psychosis and paranoia. He was state mandated hospitalized for this problem years ago. They got him on the meds but it doesn’t cure the problem and a lot of the time it doesn’t quite work well enough and he misses work from paranoia and when his attorney filed for permanent disability they wouldn’t even take it to the board as my son worked a few hours a week, not even enough to pay rent. He struggles keeping jobs and was only able to work 24 or so hours a work to keep from living on the streets but now all of his relatives can’t afford to help him anymore by providing housing for him. When he was awarded the 2 years his attorney tried to get the judge to make it permanent but she wouldn’t even listen.

  2. Sandra H.

    The disabled have to wait so long to get approved for benefits that it’s no wonder that the death rate continues to rise after their appeal is finally approved. It’s absolutely horrible that it takes so long to qualify for benefits. If you are disabled you ought to be able to be awarded benefits quickly. Most people don’t have enough savings to live properly for 6 months to a year or more without income.

    • Tom

      You may wish to consider how you vote and whether you give your elected officials feedback. Agencies don’t determine their budgets. Congress does. You and everyone else who votes elects them.

      SSA uses about .7% of FICA taxes for operations. Even though you have paid for it, anti-government elected officials determine that .7% is too much to pay for government services. Perhaps they want you to hate the government as a result. If you vote for candidates who want less government the very least you can do is make it clear what gets cut. As soon as the voting is over, these officials ignore you and then listen to the donors instead. If millions were more involved as citizens in HOW the money is spent your priorities may be met and not those of a rich donor instead. If you fall for a campaign pitch that is untrue or distorted then voters are a big part of the problem.

      • Alexandria S.

        Please re-post everyday.

      • Buggywugs

        HEAR, HEAR!!! “Grab ’em by the Mid-Terms,” this November and Vote as if your rights (and life) depend on it!

        • lucyapleslothz

          I love your comment, really interesting Gold Coast date

  3. Wanda G.

    A friend of mine husband had been trying to get his Disability for years and the last time he went he was turned down again and he told the judge that he just signed his death. And 3 weeks he passed away from a heart attach. The worst part was he was a truck driver and luckily he was walking around his truck and someone saw him fall down. What If he had been driving when it happened. He could have killed someone else along with him. That shows us that the judge didn’t care about the other people who might have been on the road.

  4. M. M.

    Why would the down-tick in the economy cause a sidnificant rise in these pending cases? Do more people suddenly feel they meet the “strict requirements for severe medically determinable impairments”? How is the cost of studies like this of so many variables justified by SS?
    Who does it benefit? The actuaries?
    Another article this morning in the email update was about the most popular baby names this year? Why is the money needed for SS payments spent on studies like this? Who does it benefit?
    My net increase with the required Medicare Insurance automatically taken out was $11. This is hardly a COLA! And so many are more in need than I am.

  5. Queenie

    It’s funny you should write this. My cousins widow has been trying since 2010 to get her disability!! Eight years later & she is still in appeal. I guess when she dies she’ll get approved!!! It’s just shameful how ill people are treated!!!

  6. Apple C.

    I have a pending date for ALJ Hearing.
    I am a post Bilateral Total Knee Replacement 2015 and 2016.
    In 2017, I suffered knee instability/severe knee spasms/leg length discrepancy/severe crushing pain on and off/depression/low back pain due to strain of leg length discrepancy. I was denied with my claim twice…
    Eventually, I had Revision Knee Replacement Surgery in May 2,2018… I have a lawyer. I lost my job.
    Please help me get a hearing date soon.
    I am drowning in debt. I have medications.
    I have no health insurance. I have to have multiple PT sessions.
    Please help.
    Memphis, Tennessee 38018

    • Ray F.

      The length of time it takes to get a hearing can vary from state to state. We attempt to resolve all claims promptly, but there may be delays due to the volume of pending appeals in your area. Please continue working with your attorney and local hearing office on specific questions about your case.
      While you wait you may want to check and see if you are eligible to receive social services from the state in which you live. These services include Medicaid, free meals, housekeeping help, transportation or help with other problems. You can get information about services in your area from your state or local social services or welfare office. Or you can visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) web page for more information.
      We hope this information helps.

  7. Andrea D.

    Part of my work is helping people with the application process for benefits. I have had people whose health issues were severe enough that they passed away either shortly after or before their benefits started. Although some of the problem has been resolved, their biggest issue was not being able to get the health care they needed because they lacked health coverage. I feel that those people are denied because the people making that decision never make their decisions based on what is written on paper. they never actually see what the person goes through daily just to stay alive. Without a clear picture the wrong judgment is often made.

    • Traci A.

      I had the same issue when i applied. I was denied because my medical problems were not clearly specified in writing. So when my lawyer did appeal she felt we had a really good case to win. As it so happened the judge we had actually knew about minere’s disease a form of vertigo. One of my medical issues, i had 2 brain surgeries due to it and he said i was lucky that he knew what that was all about. He was going to approve my case but we still had to go through the process which took about 3 hrs. I also had heart issues, seizures and other things that never were really discussed as much.
      Point is he told me the people that make the decision to approve the claims have very strict guidelines they have to follow, after that it goes to the judge.

  8. Emerita S.

    My daughter has severe case of glaucoma.

  9. Emerita S.

    my daughter had a severe condition of glaucoma. has undergone three surgeries and hadsnt been able to work for the past year and a half, drive or even do low profile housework. her claim was denied and she appealed the decision last October. Still no response. she was the higher provider for her household. How can she be in her right state of mind when she is not receiving any income and has very high costs of co-payments and medication costs. what can we do?????

  10. Madeline o.

    I am a widow and work my husband paid into the system and I can’t collect a widows benefit till I am 60 I should be able to collect upon death a portion of his social security he was already collecting due to retirement I needed that supplement I m sure you don’t care but that is my comment

    • Jeff

      Now you know how a divorced spouse feels…….

      But, you assume as the “oh poor me, I’m a widow” that you should get special treatment.

      Well, sorry, you don’t. If you want to collect a survivor benefit earlier than the age of 60, write your Congressman.

      Did you realize that if you were collecting a survivor benefit that you are also under an earnings limit? For any $2 more than $17,040 in a year period, SSA would withhold $1 in benefits as a penalty.

      So if you’re still working and making $40,000, you probably wouldn’t even get a check, depending on how much your spouse’s record is worth.

      The only thing you are eligible for is the $255 Lump Sum Death Payment at this time.

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