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.
Only about 37% 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.
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 reconsideration review before you can request an appeal hearing.
On average, the approval chances of reconsideration are only 13%. This means that in only about one out of ten cases that were originally denied, DDS reversed the denial into an approval. 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 and make sure that DDS has your most recent medical records.
Nationally, about 54% of hearings are won by disability claimants, although this varies by state (see the map for your state's approval rates). Disability hearings before an administrative law judge (ALJ) are conducted by the Social Security Administration's Office of Hearings Operations (OHO).
One reason that the chances of being approved at the hearing level of appeal are higher 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. A good way to improve your chances 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. 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—worse than any other level of appeal. Another 9% of cases get sent back ("remanded") to the hearing level for the ALJ to decide if the case was decided incorrectly, and the rest (90%) are denied or dismissed.
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 barely better than at the appeals council—2%—but a large number of cases are at least given a second chance. Federal judges send almost half of the disability cases they hear back to the hearing level, directing the ALJ to look at issues that were not 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 October 17, 2022
Data source: Social Security Administration, 2022
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