What are my chances of getting approved for disability benefits?
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. Claims that make it to a hearing are decided by federal administrative law judges (ALJs) who work for the Social Security Administration (SSA), but claims at the initial application stage and the reconsideration stage (the first level of appeal) are decided by state employees at state Disability Determination Services (DDS) agencies.
ALJs approve cases after hearings at a significantly higher rate than DDS claims examiners do at the application and reconsideration levels. About half of disability applicants who appeal and attend a hearing with an ALJ receive approval for benefits, while only about a third of applicants receive approvals at the initial application level, and just 13% of applicants are approved at the reconsideration level.
Of course, these approval rates are based on the hundreds of thousands of applicants who apply for disability benefits. Many factors go into whether a specific claim will get approved.
Some applicants who apply for benefits have serious impairments but are not yet completely unable to work, while others are seriously disabled and can't do any jobs. If you have a very severe impairment or medical condition, you have a better chance of winning your claim. Applicants with a mental condition like depression or anxiety usually have a harder time getting benefits. 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.
Where a claim is reviewed has an effect on approval rates too. DDS offices in various states have different rates of approvals, just as SSA hearing offices in different states have different rates of approvals. A Social Security study published in 2018 found quite a bit of geographic variation in approval rates. The study found that the variation stems from differences in health as well as differences in socioeconomic factors like access to health care, education, and unemployment rates.
To find your state's approval rates at the initial disability application state and after appeal, see our state disability resource pages.
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 what's supposed to be an objective system? Social Security's disability determination system might not be as objective as the agency might claim. While the rules governing Social Security disability cases are the same in every state (SSDI and SSI are federal programs), people make the final disability determinations—either claims examiners and medical consultants at DDS or ALJs at hearing offices. Decision-making based on a "human reading" of an applicant's medical records is unavoidably a subjective process. And some judges are simply more open to approving cases, while other judges deny cases substantially more often than they approve them.
A number of other factors affect your chances of getting an approval. If you haven't worked much in the past, you'll only qualify for SSI, which has lower approval rates. If you have a long work history, you have a better chance of getting benefits. When you quit working also has an effect on the disability decision (as does your gender, age, and education). For more information, read our article on who is most likely to get approved for Social Security disability benefits.
Applicants who hire a lawyer have a better chance of getting approved, especially when they have a lawyer to represent them at the hearing. Disability lawyers understand the SSA's requirements, can ask your doctors the right questions, and will make sure your paperwork supports your case.
Updated March 24, 2022