What Happens at the Social Security Disability Hearing?

If your Social Security disability application and request for reconsideration have been denied, the next step is the ALJ hearing. Here's what to expect.

By , Contributing Author
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Once you've been denied for disability twice (based on your initial application and an on-paper reconsideration), the Social Security Administration (SSA) allows applicants to request a hearing.

For most disability applicants, this step is their best shot at winning benefits—statistically, the hearing level has the highest award rate of any step in the appeals process. In this article, we'll answer the most common questions about what happens at the disability hearing so you'll have a better idea of what to expect.

Where Will the Hearing Be Held?

An administrative law judge (ALJ) will hold your hearing, either by telephone or at an SSA office, usually within 75 miles of your home. Occasionally, the SSA will conduct a hearing by video.

If the SSA schedules a telephone or video hearing, you have the right to request that the hearing be held in person. Waiting for an in-person hearing, however, will delay your hearing date.

How Formal Is the ALJ Hearing?

Disability hearings are much less formal than hearings you might have experienced in a courthouse. Often, the rooms are smaller and appear more like conference rooms than hearing rooms.

Still, most ALJs wear robes similar to judges in courtrooms and generally sit in the front of the room on an elevated platform. You should stand when the ALJ enters the room and wait until the ALJ sits before resuming your seat.

Never wear a hat or chew gum during a hearing. You don't need to wear a dress or suit but you should dress appropriately. Your clothing should be clean and neat—no shorts, t-shirts, or short skirts.

Don't bring your children to your hearing. You'll need to focus all your attention on the proceedings and not appear distracted caring for a child. Besides, if you do a good job taking care of your child during the hearing (or the child jumps on your lap during the hearing), the judge might not think you're disabled.

Who Will Be Present at the ALJ Hearing?

A court reporter and usually a vocational expert (VE) will be at your hearing (in person or by telephone). At the beginning of the proceedings, the court reporter will swear in both you and the VE along with anyone else who plans to testify. (So, you'll be testifying under oath.)

If you brought a witness, the ALJ will ask your witness to leave the room while the ALJ questions you about your past jobs and your limitations. (Later, the judge will ask the witness how your condition limits you, and will then compare your stories.)

What Questions Will Be Asked at the ALJ Hearing?

You'll be asked a series of questions during your ALJ hearing. Both your attorney (if you have one) and the ALJ will question you. It's important to speak clearly into the microphones when answering questions.

The ALJ usually begins the hearing with a discussion of your past jobs. You should describe your duties, whether you managed other employees, what the physical requirements of the job were, and why you left the job. The ALJ will use your statements to classify your past work in order to determine if you can do your old job or if you're qualified for any other work. The ALJ may then ask you to describe your symptoms and your limitations.

Once the ALJ completes the questions about your past employment and limitations, your attorney, if you've hired one, will be allowed to ask you specific questions about your disability. Some examples of questions you can expect to answer at your disability hearing are:

  • How far can you walk without taking a break?
  • How long can you sit?
  • How much can you lift?
  • Do you have any trouble bending over? Can you tie your shoes? Button your coat?
  • Do you have any trouble writing? Can you read?
  • How far did you go in school?
  • Do you have pain? If you have pain, how bad is it on a scale from 1-10 on a bad day?
  • Do you need help shopping, cleaning, cooking, or dressing and bathing yourself?
  • Do you take medicine? Does it have any side effects?
  • Do you have any trouble hearing or seeing?
  • Are you depressed?
  • Do you drink alcohol or use drugs?
  • Do you sleep well at night?
  • Do you have to rest during the day?
  • How often do you go to the doctor?
  • Do you go to church or attend other social events?
  • What do you do for pleasure?

If you have an attorney, your attorney will review the questions with you before the hearing.

Who Asks the Questions at a Disability Hearing?

Generally, even if your attorney has questioned you, the ALJ will ask further questions for clarification or to gain additional information. If you don't have an attorney, the ALJ will do all the questioning.

It's important that you answer the questions honestly. Your ALJ hearing isn't the time to be bashful or to undersell your limitations. But don't lie or exaggerate your condition either. The ALJ will take your honesty into consideration when deciding your claim.

When Does the Vocational Expert Testify?

Once the ALJ has finished questioning you, both the judge and your attorney will pose a series of questions (called hypotheticals) to the vocational expert (VE). The role of the VE is to provide the ALJ with an opinion as to what jobs you could perform despite your limitations.

The ALJ will ask whether the VE thinks you can do your past work based on the testimony you've given about your condition. If the VE says you can't do your old job, the ALJ will ask more questions about how your documented limitations affect your ability to work at other jobs. Once the ALJ has finished questioning the VE, your attorney will have a chance to ask the VE follow-up questions.

At the end of the hearing, the ALJ will ask if you would like to add anything. Although it isn't required, it can be helpful to explain in your own words why you don't think you can work. However, the ALJ won't hold it against you if you choose not to say anything.

Submit Your Disability Evidence Ahead of Time

It's important that you provide the hearing office with all the evidence you'll present at the ALJ hearing, well in advance of your hearing date, so the ALJ has time to review your file. You can present new evidence at the hearing, but ALJs strongly prefer having all the evidence in advance.

In addition to medical evidence, you should provide the SSA with a detailed description of the jobs you've held in the past. Understanding your work history can help the judge make a fair decision in your case. If you plan to bring a witness to testify on your behalf, you should notify the ALJ in writing.

Improve Your Chances of Getting Disability

Understanding how your ALJ hearing will be conducted and what to expect can help you better prepare your case for disability. If you've got a Social Security disability hearing coming up, it might be a good idea to talk to a disability lawyer. You'll have a much better chance of winning your case with experienced representation.

Updated May 10, 2022

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