When you apply for Social Security disability benefits, keep in mind that you'll likely receive a denial letter at some point. Only 36% of applicants are awarded benefits initially, and even fewer (13%) are awarded at the first administrative appeal level (known as reconsideration).
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is required to let you know the reasons why they denied you when they send you a denial letter. You can respond to the SSA's reasons in writing and explain why you believe they made a mistake.
While an appeal letter will be part of your request, you'll have to submit some official forms too. If you've received a denial letter after your initial application, the first thing you should do is file a request for reconsideration. Reconsideration means that you're asking for another disability claims examiner to look at your application and determine if the first decision was correct.
If you were denied at the reconsideration level, you'll need to request a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ will look at your application with fresh eyes and ask you questions about your disability claim.
The SSA provides many ways for you to file your appeal:
Both the reconsideration and request for hearing forms have a section at the beginning asking you to explain why you're appealing the denial, but the forms don't give you a lot of space to explain. You can keep your reasons general before going into specifics later in your appeal letter—saying "I'm disabled" or "I can't work" in that section is fine.
Make sure that you've completed the relevant above forms before writing your appeal letter. If you only send in a letter without the official forms, Social Security can't process your appeal.
Before you begin writing your appeal letter, take time to carefully read your denial notice and figure out why Social Security denied your application. Knowing the reasons behind your denial can help you tailor your letter to address the SSA's concerns. For example, if the SSA denied you because you didn't meet the non-medical requirements for disability benefits, don't spend too much time talking about how your medical limitations prevent you from working.
You might disagree with several of Social Security's reasons. When you review the denial letter, make a list of all the issues you want to address in your appeal. That way, you won't miss a reason that the SSA could find persuasive.
One of the forms you need to submit with your appeal, the Disability Report (SSA-3441), will be the basis of your letter. Section 10 of this form ("Remarks") provides a page of blank space for you to provide any information you think Social Security needs to know. You can attach additional pages if you need more room.
Address every reason why Social Security denied you in your appeal letter. Keep your responses brief and to the point. Below are some examples of how to respond to some of the most common reasons for denial.
Technical denials. The SSA will deny your claim if you don't meet certain financial requirements to be eligible for benefits.
Medical denials. The SSA will deny your claim even if you're technically eligible to receive benefits if the agency thinks your medical conditions don't prevent you from working.
For more information on medical denials, see our article Six Reasons Why Social Security Might Medically Deny Your Claim.
Your best approach is to include a short description of your most significant physical and mental limitations. Give Social Security the most important information you want the agency to know about your conditions. Here is some sample language for your appeal letter:
Make sure to include how often your symptoms occur, how long they last, and when they started. The SSA loves numbers and quantities, so if you're writing about not being able to lift as much as you used to, say something like "I can't lift more than 10 pounds" or "I have trouble carrying a gallon of milk."
Don't spend valuable space talking about issues or concerns you have that aren't relevant to a finding of disability. The SSA is aware that people filing for disability benefits have to deal with an often frustrating bureaucracy at a point in their lives when they're out of work, in pain, and stressed. Your appeal already signals to the agency that you disagree with their past decision, so don't use the space to argue or complain.
Before you send your appeal letter, make sure that you didn't forget to complete the formal request for reconsideration or for a hearing in front of an ALJ (see above). If you have new medical evidence, let the SSA know. At this stage of the process, the agency will obtain the medical records with the release form you filled out for the initial application. (If you didn't sign a release form and you were denied because the SSA couldn't get your medical records, you should submit Form SSA-3288 with your appeal.)
If you already have a medical source statement from your doctor or witness statements from your friends and family, feel free to include those with your appeal letter. If you don't have medical or witness statements, or you aren't sure whether their statements will help your case, consider contacting an experienced disability attorney or advocate. Your representative can help you navigate the appeals process, handle communications with Social Security, and get opinions that can strengthen your case.
Whether you're requesting reconsideration or a hearing before an ALJ, you have 60 days to appeal your denial.
Updated June 17, 2022