Don't be discouraged if your first application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits wasn't approved—about 70% of applications are denied at the initial level. Most successful applications ("claims") are won at later stages of the disability determination process, however, so it's a good idea to appeal your denial.
The Social Security disability appeals process consists of four levels. You must work your way through each level before you can appeal to the next one, and each level has a deadline of 60 days to appeal after you receive a denial letter from the earlier stage. The four appeal steps are:
If you miss the appeal deadline at any step—unless you have a good reason—you can't proceed with your claim for benefits on that application. Instead, you'll have to start all over again with a new application, which wastes time and can cut into any back pay you might be owed. Back pay covers the time you had to wait for Social Security to approve your claim for benefits, and can go back to the date of your application (for SSI) or your onset date (for SSDI).
The first step in the disability appeal process is called reconsideration. Social Security previously experimented with removing this level in several "prototype" states, including Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania, but the agency reinstated reconsideration for all states in 2020.
During reconsideration, a new claims examiner and medical consultant with your state's Disability Determination Services (DDS) will review the agency's original denial to see whether the decision was incorrect. In order to start the appeal process, you'll need to file a Request for Reconsideration (SSA-561) within 60 days after you receive your initial denial letter.
You'll receive a written decision on your reconsideration appeal within three or four months of your request. If your claim is denied again (which is likely—only about 15% of claims are won on reconsideration), you should appeal again by requesting a hearing in front of a disability judge.
For most applicants, having a disability hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ) is their best shot at winning benefits. Statistically, the hearing level has the highest award rate—around 45%—of any step in the appeals process. Hearings can be conducted in-person at a local Social Security office, over the phone, or by videoconference.
Even though the hearing is held in front of a judge, the process is informal compared to civil or criminal court proceedings. However, you should still treat the hearing and the ALJ with respect. You don't need to wear a suit, but your clothing should be appropriate for the occasion (avoid dirty, ripped, or revealing attire). A good general rule is to behave as you would for a job interview—don't chew gum or check your text messages during the hearing. If your hearing is held over the phone or videoconference, make sure you're in a quiet location with few distractions for the duration of the call.
Most hearings last between 30 minutes and one hour. A typical hearing is attended by the claimant (you), the ALJ, a hearing monitor who makes a recording of the proceedings, your representative (if you have one), and a vocational expert. During the hearing, the ALJ will ask questions about how your medical condition affects your daily activities. Common questions include:
Once the ALJ has finished asking you about yourself, the judge will then ask the vocational expert several work-related questions (called hypotheticals) about what kinds of jobs somebody with your limitations might be able to perform. The ALJ will use the vocational expert's answers to help decide whether you're able to work. After the vocational testimony, you or your attorney may make a closing statement, and the hearing will end.
You can request a disability hearing by filing Form HA-501, Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge, within 60 days of receiving your denial letter. Keep in mind that it can take a year or more before your hearing date is scheduled, although remote hearings (those conducted by phone or videoconference) are often scheduled quicker.
If you're not satisfied with the ALJ's decision in your case, you can appeal further to the Appeals Council. You may want to appeal a total denial of benefits (an "unfavorable" decision) or an approval of benefits that don't date far back enough (a "partially favorable" decision).
The Appeals Council won't hold another hearing. Instead, they will either grant or deny your request for a review of the ALJ's decision. If the Appeals Council grants your request for review, they will review the judge's reasoning to make sure no errors were made. Keep in mind that even if you're appealing a partially favorable decision—meaning you think that you were disabled for a longer period of time than the ALJ determined—the council may conclude that the judge was mistaken in awarding you any benefits at all.
After the Appeals Council reviews your case, they can either remand (send back) your claim to the ALJ with instructions to hold another hearing, or (rarely) they can decide the outcome of your claim on their own. If the Appeals Council declines to review your case or denies your claim altogether, you can file a lawsuit in federal district court.
You can request review by the Appeals Council by filing Form HA-520, Request for Review of Hearing Decision, within 60 days after you receive your ALJ decision.
The final step in appealing an SSDI or SSI denial is to seek a review from federal district court. As with each level, you must file a complaint in federal court within 60 days of the Appeals Council decision. Like the Appeals Council, the federal district court looks at whether the ALJ made any errors—the court won't hold a new trial. Although you can represent yourself in federal district court, having a lawyer at this stage is highly recommended.
Having a lawyer isn't required at any point in the appeals process, but you can significantly increase your chances of winning with an experienced attorney at your side. Here are some examples of how your representative can help you get your claim approved at each appeals level:
At almost every stage, disability attorneys typically work on a contingency basis, meaning they don't get paid unless you win your case. Therefore, it's generally better to hire a lawyer earlier in the appeal process—which gives you and your representative more time to strengthen your application.
Updated December 6, 2023