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Preparing for Your Social Security Disability Hearing

You filed for Social Security disability benefits under the programs for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or both. You thought your case was a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration (SSA) did not. The SSA sent you a letter denying benefits under your initial disability application. You appealed this decision by filing a "request for reconsideration." The SSA denied your claim a second time.

What do you do now?

You can request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). An ALJ hearing is the second level of review. You will get a hearing date at least 75 days before your hearing.

The hearing is typically held at your local Social Security Administration (SSA) hearing office. However, post-COVID, you can appear at the hearing by telephone or online video. That means you can testify before the ALJ from your home. Or you can testify from your representative's law office.

You'll want to ensure you're fully prepared for your Social Security disability hearing. Preparation can mean the difference between another denial or approval of Social Security disability benefits. The ALJ hearing level typically has a higher approval rate than the initial or reconsideration levels.

This article covers common questions an ALJ will likely ask you during your hearing. It also covers some helpful tips to help you best prepare for the ALJ hearing. Finally, it offers advice on what to avoid during the ALJ portion.

What You'll Testify About at the Hearing

The ALJ already knows basic information about your medical condition/diagnosis from your medical records. Therefore, the ALJ will want to know how your impairment affects you. To do so, the ALJ will ask you open-ended questions. Consider the following:

  1. Symptoms: The ALJ may want to know more about your symptoms, like dizziness, fatigue, pain, etc. The ALJ may ask you: How long you sleep during the day? Do you have any side effects from your treatments or medications? How would you describe your headaches?
  2. Physical/mental limitations: Depending on the nature of your medical condition, the ALJ may ask how your physical, mental (or both) impairment limits your functioning. Questions may include: How long can you walk before resting? How long can you concentrate? How long can you sit before you need to change positions?
  3. Medical history: The ALJ may ask when you first reported symptoms to your medical providers. Or how long you've been undergoing medical treatment or taking medications. Remember that the ALJ may discredit your testimony if what you say at the hearing doesn't match up with what's in your medical evidence. Be sure to answer honestly.
  4. Day-to-Day Activities: The ALJ may ask you what you do in a typical day. The ALJ may also ask about how well you sleep at night. Other questions may include: What activities can you no longer do because of your impairment? Do you drive a car or perform basic home repairs?
  5. Training and Education: Besides school or college, the ALJ may ask you about any formal vocational training, military service, on-the-job training, and related experience.
  6. Work History: The ALJ will ask about your work experience over the past 15 years. Specifically, you'll be asked about your job duties; how much time you spent sitting, standing, or walking; how much weight you lifted; and the skill level required for each job. A vocational expert will testify about your ability to do your prior work or any other work based on age, education, work experience, and functional limitations.

How To Prepare for Your Hearing

The following list offers tips to help you prepare your disability case for a hearing. Consider appointing an attorney or non-attorney representative to help prepare you for the hearing.

  • If chronic pain is at the heart of your claim, describe the intensity of your pain on a scale of one to ten. Again, it helps to be clear and specific when testifying.
  • Learn everything you can about the particular judge presiding over your hearing, as judges often differ in approach. For example, some judges don't say much, but others tend to challenge claims directly.
  • Keep a detailed diary of your daily activities a few weeks before your hearing. Include nearly everything you do, from when you wake up to when you go to sleep, including how well you sleep at night. Specifically, document how well you feel throughout the day and what you do to alleviate discomfort.
  • Make a list of activities you once enjoyed but no longer can do due to your impairment.
  • List all medications you take and any you no longer take. Include details like the prescribing doctor's name, dosage, and side effects.
  • Write a detailed list of your job duties, plus the physical and mental requirements, for all jobs you've had in the past 15 years.
  • If you're represented, meet with your representative before your hearing.

Statements that Can Hurt Your Claim

Being prepared also means knowing what NOT to do or say during a hearing on your Social Security disability claim.

  • Don't sound over-eager to collect disability benefits. This will hurt your credibility. Make it clear to the ALJ that you'd rather work than collect benefits.
  • Always tell the truth during your hearing. Remember that the ALJ will look for inconsistencies between your testimony and what's in your medical records. You will likely derail an otherwise credible claim if you exaggerate your symptoms.
  • Make sure you explain your conditions and symptoms and how those symptoms limit your ability to work concisely. Avoid being vague.
  • Consider specific tasks such as walking, sitting, standing, and carrying. The ALJ will ask you about your ability to do these particular activities. Simply saying, "I haven't thought about it," will not help your case.
  • Even if you have a solid claim, remember that this is an appeal from a denial. That means you must present yourself as a reliable claimant, especially for conditions with limited objective evidence (including mental disabilities).

Get Better Prepared: Contact an SSDI Attorney Today

Sometimes getting approved for SSI and SSDI benefits — especially during the hearing process — can get complicated. Don't leave your disability claim up to chance — get help from an experienced Social Security disability attorney near you. A Social Security Disability lawyer or legal team can submit new evidence on your behalf, cross-examine medical experts at the hearing, and appeal the written decision, if necessary.

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