Most applications ("claims") for Social Security disability benefits aren't approved at first. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has four levels of appeals after you submit your initial claim for disability benefits—reconsideration, hearing, Appeals Council, and federal court.
The hearing level is where disability claims have their best chance of being approved. Every disability case is different, so looking at the general percentage of cases approved at a disability hearing doesn't mean that your specific case has the same odds. But you can almost always bet that your chances will improve when you appeal your denial to the hearing level.
Your chances of getting your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application approved vary by which level of the disability determination process your claim is in, but having an attorney will increase your odds at each stage.
According to Social Security statistics, only about 38% of claims for disability benefits are approved at the initial level. The initial review of your case is performed by your state's Disability Determination Services (DDS) agency.
A good way to improve your chances of approval is to stay on top of things by staying in touch with the disability examiner assigned to your case and by keeping all parties involved updated on your situation.
If DDS denies your initial application, you can ask for a second opinion by a different DDS claims examiner in an appeal called reconsideration. Social Security requires you to go through a reconsideration review before you can request an appeal hearing.
On average, the approval chances at the reconsideration stage of appeal are only about 15%. To illustrate, this means that, in 20 cases that were originally denied, DDS only reversed 3 denials into approvals. The rest were denied a second time.
There's not much you can do to improve your chances of winning a reconsideration, except to go to the doctor regularly and make sure that DDS has your most recent medical records. Even though your chance of winning a reconsideration isn't great, it's a step you have to go through before you can request an appeal hearing.
Disability hearings before an administrative law judge (ALJ) are conducted by the Social Security Administration's Office of Hearings Operations (OHO). Nationally, about 57% of hearings are won by disability claimants, although the percentage varies by state (see the map for your state's approval rates). In 2023, the states with the highest approval rates (about 65%) are Hawaii, Maryland, North Carolina, and Oregon. The states with the lowest approval rates are Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and Virginia (ALJ Disposition Data, Social Security, 2023).
One reason that the chances of being approved at the hearing level of appeal are higher than at the initial application and reconsideration stages is that it takes so long to get a hearing; by then, many applicants have deteriorated physically or mentally, making their disability claim more clear-cut.
But the chances of winning a disability appeal depend on so many factors that it's not possible to predict the outcome of your own hearing. Learn more about how to improve your chances of winning disability benefits at a hearing.
Only 1% of cases at the Social Security Appeals Council are approved—much worse than the earlier levels of appeal. Another 12% of cases get sent back ("remanded") to the hearing level for the ALJ to decide if the case was decided incorrectly, and the rest (87%) are denied or dismissed. (Congressional Justification, FY 2024, Social Security.)
The reason disability claimants generally bother appealing to the Appeals Council is that it's a required step on the way to appealing in federal court.
The chances of winning an appeal in federal court are also 1%—no better than at the appeals council—but a large number of cases are at least given a second chance. Federal judges send more than half of the disability cases that they hear back to the hearing level (58% in 2022), asking the ALJ to take another look at issues that weren't properly considered at the original hearing.
The chances of winning on appeal can depend on a variety of factors. You can increase your odds of success using the following recommendations.
Having an attorney doesn't guarantee that you'll win your disability appeal, but you'll increase the odds that your appeal will be approved. Some claimants avoid hiring an attorney because they think that a lawyer will drag out their case, but really the opposite is true. Disability lawyers work on contingency, meaning they want to win your claim quickly so they can get paid sooner.
Disability lawyers can help you increase your chances of winning your appeal by:
If your disability claim is at the Appeals Council or federal court, you'll almost certainly want an attorney who can walk you through the complex legal issues at this level of appeal.
Being represented by a disability lawyer at the hearing level can raise your chances significantly. A Social Security study found that those who brought a representative to a hearing were three times more likely to get an approval than those who didn't.
We recently completed our own study of SSDI and SSI approval rates by asking our readers about their outcomes. Our study showed that readers' chances more than doubled when they were represented by a lawyer at the hearing.
For more information, see our survey results on the following topics:
Updated July 27, 2023
Data source: Social Security Administration, 2023