What Happens at the Social Security Disability Hearing?

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

Once you have 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 (some states allow claimants to skip the reconsideration).

For most disability claimants, 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 people have to help you understand what to expect.

Where Will the Hearing Be Held?

Your hearings will be held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) at an SSA office, usually within 75 miles of your home. Occasionally, the SSA will conduct a hearing by video to make it more convenient for you. If the SSA does schedule a video hearing, you have the right to request that the hearing be conducted in person. Although it will likely delay your hearing date, an in-person hearing is generally a better choice.

How Formal Is It?

Disability hearings are much less formal than hearings you may have experienced in a courthouse. Often, the rooms are small and appear more like conference rooms than hearing rooms. But most ALJs wear robes similar to what you would see in a courtroom 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 has taken his or her seat before resuming yours.

Never wear a hat or chew gum during a proceeding. You don't need to wear a dress or suit but you should be dressed appropriately. No shorts, t-shirts, or short skirts. Children are generally not permitted to attend hearings.

Who Will Be at the Hearing?

A court reporter and usually a Vocational Expert (VE) will be at your hearing. 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. If you brought a witness, often the ALJ will ask your witness to leave the room while the ALJ questions you. It is important to speak clearly into the microphones that are provided when answering questions.

What Questions Will Be Asked?

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 purpose of this is to allow the ALJ to classify your past work so that he or she can determine if you can do your old job or if you are qualified for any other work.

Once the ALJ completes the questions with regards to your past employment, he or she will allow your attorney, if you have hired one, to ask you specific questions about your disability. Some examples of questions you can expect to answer at your disability hearing are:

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

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

Who Will Ask the Questions?

Generally, even if your attorney has questioned you, the ALJ will ask further questions for clarification or to gain additional information he or she thinks is important.

If you have not hired an attorney, the ALJ will conduct the questioning.

It is important that you answer the questions honestly; if the ALJ believes your answers are not honest or that you are exaggerating, he or she will take this into consideration when deciding your claim.

When Does the Vocational Expert Testify?

Once the ALJ has finished questioning you, the ALJ 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 are able to perform despite your limitations.

The ALJ will ask the VE whether he or she thinks you can do your past work based on the testimony you have given about your condition. If the VE says you cannot do your old job, the ALJ will ask more questions about how your documented limitations affect your ability to work. Once the ALJ has finished questioning the VE, your attorney will have a chance to ask the VE follow-up questions if necessary.

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

Submit Your Evidence Ahead of Time

It is important that you provide the SSA with all of the evidence you will present on your behalf at the hearing, well in advance of your hearing date. This will give the ALJ time to review your file. You may present new evidence at the hearing, but ALJs generally do not like this. In addition to medical evidence, you should provide the SSA with a detailed description of the jobs you have held in the past. This will assist the judge in making a fair decision in your case. If you plan on bringing a witness to testify on your behalf, you should notify the ALJ in writing.

If you've got a social security hearing coming up, you may want to consider talking to a disability lawyer. You'll have a much better chance at winning your case with experienced representation.

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