Applying for social security can feel overwhelming and more than 70% of applicants are turned down the first time. If your claim has been denied, it can seem like there is no path to getting the financial support you need.
But there is a way to get the benefits you need and have worked to earn. The first thing you should understand is that your denial letter should contain an explanation of the reason you were denied. If you believe that you should qualify for benefits, then this explanation should tell you exactly what you have to do to win an appeal.
There are four levels of appeal and the best way to navigate through them is to work with a social security legal professional. An attorney who is well versed in social security law and policy will help you avoid needless mistakes and red tape.
The Four Appeal Levels for Social Security
After you receive your denial letter, you will have 60 days to complete your request for reconsideration. Keep in mind that mailing times may cut into that sixty days, which means up to ten days might be wasted in transit. It may be best to assume you have only 50 days. Alternatively, you can drop it off at the social security office in person.
The first three steps lead up to your federal court appeal. So it’s important to take each step seriously and complete it in full and to the best of your ability.
In most cases, the stated reason for denial will be that the SSA did not consider your condition to constitute a disability. If this is the case, ask to see what evidence they can provide for their determination of non-disability. Then, when filing your request for reconsideration, include as much of the following as you can obtain;
- A letter from your doctor which explains why he or she believes that you are disabled
- Letters from friends and family explaining how your disability has adversely affected your life
- Any additional medical evidence that may not have been submitted with your original claim
If you are denied at this point in the process, you may meet with a Social Security representative to explain that you are, in fact, disabled.
After having your request for reconsideration denied, it’s time to have your case reviewed by an administrative law judge. You can expect to wait up to two years after your request for a hearing.
You will need to attend in person. Bring your representative and additional witnesses. Medical experts and vocational professionals are best. You and your legal representative may question the witnesses in order to build the strongest case possible.
After the hearing, you will receive notice by mail with the judge’s decision.
Appeals Court Review
If the judge’s decision is not satisfactory, you can ask the Appeals Council to review the disability court’s decision. If, up until this point, you have not sought out the help of a Social Security Disability lawyer, now is the time to change that.
The Appeals Council will review your case and decide whether or not they agree with the judge’s decision. If they decide the Administrative Law Judge was right, then they will uphold the judge’s decision. If the council believes the judge was in error, they have the option to send your case back before the administrative law judge for a second hearing.
Sometimes the Appeals Council will overturn a denial, but this is rare. If they believe the judge’s decision was completely erroneous, and overturn the ALJ’s decision, your appeal will be automatically approved.
Federal Court Review
If you have reached this point in the process, you are sure to feel exasperated and dismayed at the entire process. However, if you are truly disabled, then you need and deserve to access the social security benefits for which you have worked for years to earn.
You need an attorney who is an expert in Social Security Law to work with you to file a lawsuit against the SSA in the Federal District Court.
The letter you received informing you of the decision made by the Appeals Council will provide information explaining how to file a lawsuit in federal court. Your attorney will know the process well and will be able to guide you through this stressful experience.
You and your attorney should review the results of each of the previous steps together. The best place to start in building your case is with the list of evidence we described under “Reconsideration Request.” If there are any weaknesses in your evidence, now is the time to remedy that. Address any doubts specified by the ALJ and the Appeals Court and provide evidence and witness testimony that can allay those doubts.