What to Expect at Your Social Security Hearing (And the Two Most Important Things You Need to Know)

Many people are surprised to learn that a hearing to determine whether or not they will be awarded Social Security benefits for their disability is typically short (usually in the range of 15 minutes to an hour) and somewhat informal. Without a doubt, however, the hearing is the most important part of your disability claim, so being thoroughly prepared is essential to maximizing the impact of a short hearing. 

At the hearing your case will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who will decide your claim either in person or by video (although you have the right to request an in-person hearing). The hearing will be held in a conference room not a courtroom or courthouse. Other people in the hearing will include a court reporter, a vocational expert, and perhaps a medical expert. The judge will have reviewed your medical records and any medical opinions prior to the hearing.

Social Security does not have a government attorney argue against the claim but the judge needs to look at the case from all sides to determine if your disability prevents you from returning to your old job or, in Social Security’s words, prevents you from finding “other work in the national economy”.

How long the hearing lasts will depend on the judge, the complexity of the case, and other factors. The judge will ask you questions during the hearing. Each judge has a different style of questioning. 

Topics covered during your testimony will likely include:

  • Your age, education, marital status and living arrangements.
  • The date you last worked and the reason you stopped work.
  •  A review of all your work for the last 15 years with dates for each job, the physical requirements for each job, the technical or skill requirements for each job and why the job ended.
  • The discussion of your medical conditions will include your symptoms, treatment and work limitations. You will be asked about each one of your medical problems individually with questions about how long you have had the problem, what doctors you have seen for the problem, and how the problem affects your day-to-day functioning as well as your ability to perform work-related activities such as walking, standing, sitting, bending, climbing, crawling, lifting and carrying, and using your arms and hands. 
  • If one of the conditions that affects your ability to work is a mental impairment, you will be asked to explain how the mental impairment impacts your ability to think, concentrate, socialize, and perform other mental functions. 
  • There will also be a discussion of activities of daily living and how your medical condition interferes with you from having a normal day. (Click here for a video which explains how to best describe your daily activities at a Social Security disability hearing.)
  • The judge will want to know why you can’t return to your past work and why you can’t perform other work. 

If the ALJ has not asked you any questions, you can ask to say a few words. Use your time to explain how your disability prevents you from working. Of course, the more persuasive you are, the better your chances are of winning your case.  For a few tips on being persuasive at your hearing, we have a short video and article on our website.

Once you’re done talking, a medical expert may testify in person or by phone. The medical expert has never examined you; the expert will have only reviewed your medical records.

The judge will ask the medical expert questions. The medical expert will offer opinions about work limitations and the severity of your medical conditions.

Finally, a vocational expert will testify. The judge will ask the vocational expert if an individual could work with the limitations the judge believes you have. Sometimes the judge believes that you are as limited as you say, other times the judge may not believe you are that limited. Either way, the vocational expert will respond if there are any jobs that exist with the limitations described by the judge. 

Usually you will not receive a decision at the hearing. More typically your decision will be in writing and will take from 30 to 60 days from the date of your hearing to receive. The length of time you have to wait for a decision can vary greatly from one judge to another. A copy of the decision will be mailed to you. 

It bears repeating: Your disability hearing is one of the most important parts of the disability benefits application process. Your testimony during the hearing can have a major effect on the outcome of your case. Click here to learn four things you can do during your hearing to improve your chances of being awarded benefits.

A couple of key pieces of advice to keep in mind: Since the hearing is short, show up on time. In fact, we recommend that you arrive 30 minutes ahead of your hearing. If you are late the judge may refuse to hear your case. If you aren’t familiar with the location of the hearing, make a “dry run” before the hearing so you know the route and how long your travel time will be. As we mentioned, disability hearings are somewhat informal, so you can dress normally, but no ripped jeans, tank tops or revealing clothes. (For more tips on what NOT to do at your hearing, click here for a short informative video.) 

Bottom line, here are the two most important things you need to know about your Social Security disability appeal hearing: One, it is your best opportunity to present your case for benefits and two, for that reason, thorough preparation is critically important. At Cuddigan Law we carefully prepare our clients for their hearings and we are alongside them every step of the way. If you are disabled, unable to work, and are considering applying for Social Security disability or have been turned down for benefits, contact us for a free evaluation of your situation.

Sean D. Cuddigan
SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska
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