You may have heard that everyone gets denied the first time they apply for Social Security disability benefits. Though this is slight hyperbole, it unfortunately is not far from the truth.
The first time you apply for disability, you have about a 25-30% chance of being approved. This is called the initial application, and is processed at the office called Disability Determination Services, or DDS.
If your initial application is denied, you can appeal by filing something called a reconsideration. This again goes to DDS. At this level, you have about a 10-15% change of getting approved. Typically, you will need to submit new and material evidence if you have any chance of getting approved.
If you are denied at the reconsideration level, you have another chance to appeal by filing a request for a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). This takes the case away from DDS, and puts a judge in charge of reviewing the case. At this level, your chances of getting approved dramatically increase. Depending on where you live, you usually have about a 50% chance of getting approved at the ALJ level.
If you are denied at the ALJ level, you have yet another opportunity to appeal. This time, you file a Request for Review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council is the next highest court after the ALJ. At this level, a council of new judges will review your case. However, this time the Council is looking for legal or technical errors that the ALJ made. At this level, only about 3% of cases are outright approved by the Appeals Council. Another 22% are sent back down to the ALJ to conduct a new hearing. This is called a remand, and does not mean that your case will be approved. It only means that the ALJ has to take a second look at your case.
If your request for review is denied by the Appeals Council, you can file an appeal in the federal district court for your area. At this level, about 70% of claims are denied. However, most of the remaining 30% are not approved outright for benefits. Instead, they are sent back to a lower level for additional investigation into the claim. A very small proportion of claims are approved outright at this level.
After reading all of these statistics, it may feel like the average person has no chance of getting approved for benefits. While it is not easy to get approved, it is possible. They key to success is being informed and following through. The burden is on the applicant to show Social Security they are disabled, so you have to be willing to put in the work.