Social Security Disability Claim Approval Rate

Only about a third of applications are approved at the initial application level but almost half are approved at the appeal hearing.

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The approval rate for Social Security disability (SSDI) and SSI disability claims varies, depending on the level at which claims are reviewed and where they are reviewed. Hearings are decided by federal administrative law judges (ALJs), whereas the initial application and the reconsideration (the first level of appeal) are decided by state employees at state Disability Determination Services (DDS) agencies.

Cases heard by ALJs have a significantly higher rate of approval than cases that are decided at the application and reconsideration levels. For instance, almost half of disability applicants who appeal and attend a hearing with an ALJ are approved for benefits, while only about a third of applications are approved at the initial application level and only 13% of applicants are approved at the reconsideration level.

Of course, these approval rates are based on the thousands of applicants who apply for disability benefits. There are many factors that go into whether a claim will get approved. Many of these people who apply for benefits have impairments but are not yet unable to work, while others are seriously disabled. If you have a very severe impairment or medical condition, you, of course, have a better chance of winning your claim. (To find out approval rates from a survey we took of our readers, read our survey statistics on claim approval rates for various medical conditions.)

Those who hire a lawyer have a better chance of getting approved. Where a claim is reviewed also has an effect on approval rates. The DDS offices in various states have differing rates of approvals, just as hearing offices in different states have differing rates of approvals. A Social Security study that the SSA published in 2018 found that the geographic variation in the receipt of disability benefits stems from both differences in health and socioeconomic factors like access to health care, education, and unemployment rates.

But there are also significant differences between the approval rates for different judges in the same state. One judge may approve only 30% of cases that she sees while another judge in the same hearing office may approve 60% of the cases he sees. What accounts for such differences in an allegedly objective system? The system is not as objective as the Social Security Administration might claim. While the rules governing Social Security disability cases are the same in every state (SSDI and SSI are federal programs), the disability determinations are made by people—either by claims examiners and medical consultants at DDS or by ALJs at hearing offices. Decision making based on a "human reading" of a claimant's medical records and credibility is, inherently and unavoidably, a subjective process. It is also true, as well, that some judges are simply more open to approving cases, while other judges deny cases substantially more often than they approve them.

To find your state's approval rates for the initial disability application and on appeal, see our state disability resource pages.

Updated December 14, 2018

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