What Are My Chances of Winning a Social Security Disability Appeal?

Your chances of winning an appeal depend on your medical condition, but here are the averages.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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.

What Are My Chances of Winning My Disability Case on Appeal?

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.

Initial Application Statistics

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.

Chances of Winning on Reconsideration

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.

Percentage of Appeals Approved at the Hearing Level

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.

Chances of Approval at the Appeals Council

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.

Odds of Winning a Disability Claim 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.

Tips for Increasing Your Chances of Winning on Appeal

The chances of winning on appeal can depend on a variety of factors. You can increase your odds of success using the following recommendations.

  • Submit your medical records on time. You'll generally have 60 days from your denial to file an appeal. If you notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) about new medical evidence when you file your appeal paperwork, you'll have a stronger case to present at the next stage.
  • Read your denial letter. Your denial letter tells you the reasons why the SSA didn't approve your claim. Knowing why you were denied gives you the opportunity to fix the issue for your appeal.
  • Make sure you're within the income limits for SSI. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a needs-based program with strict income and resource limits. If you're applying for SSI, keep an eye out for any windfalls that could push you out of the qualifying limits.
  • Get familiar with the Blue Book listings. The SSA maintains a listing of conditions that the agency considers especially serious. Having a medical record that contains evidence of certain specific requirements means that you can qualify for disability automatically.
  • Let Social Security know about new medical evidence. Notify the agency whenever you have recent medical visits with your doctor or if your condition worsens.
  • Be detailed when filling out your function report. Your functional limitations help the SSA assess your residual functional capacity (RFC) and your RFC determines whether you can perform any work.
  • Respond promptly to communications from the SSA. At certain levels of appeal, you might receive requests from DDS or an ALJ asking you for more information or to attend a consultative exam. If you don't answer, the SSA can deny your claim for lack of contact or cooperation.

A Disability Lawyer Can Help You Win Your SSDI or SSI Appeal

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

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