Most people who file for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits will need to appeal a denial at some point. In most states, it takes two levels of appeal to get to a disability hearing in front of a judge, and often it can take more than a year to schedule the hearing date.
While the wait to see an administrative law judge (ALJ) can be frustrating, you can use the time productively to make sure that you're well prepared when the time comes for your hearing.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) allows you to request your entire case file before you go to your hearing. You—or your representative—should take advantage of this and review your file to see how you can strengthen your case for the administrative law judge (ALJ).
When reviewing your file, pay particular attention to the following issues:
You should request your case file as soon as you receive the Notice of Hearing telling you what date your hearing is scheduled. Hearing notices are sent at least 75 days before the scheduled hearing, so you should have enough time to review your file and address any issues—such as obtaining missing medical records—that you see in your case.
For more information, see our article on reviewing your Social Security file to prepare for appeal.
After you've reviewed your case file, you should have a good idea of which medical records haven't yet been submitted to Social Security. At two stages of the disability determination process—the initial determination and the reconsideration level—the SSA will do most of the legwork to obtain your records. But once you've requested an ALJ hearing, the agency doesn't update your records for you. You'll have to gather them yourself.
Because it typically takes about one year after a denial at the reconsideration level to get an ALJ hearing, claimants have often had a significant amount of medical treatment since the agency last reviewed their file. Get a jump start on submitting your records by requesting them about eight to ten weeks before your hearing.
You can help increase the likelihood that your medical records will arrive in time for the hearing by being smart about which ones you request. Avoid duplication by finding the dates of the last records the SSA has and requesting only new documents since then. By narrowing the time frame of your records request, you can streamline the process and reduce copying costs.
Once you receive your updated medical records, you should keep a copy for yourself and submit copies of these records to the hearing office. The goal is to make sure the ALJ gets all of your records in advance of the hearing, to avoid any delays in deciding your case while waiting for them to arrive. You might even get lucky and receive an on-the-record decision, meaning you'll get disability benefits without having to go to your hearing.
Social Security values opinions from doctors who've treated you regularly for your conditions, because they can provide unique insight into your symptoms and limitations. So to prepare for your hearing, you should aim to get a medical source statement from your doctor that supports your application for disability benefits.
The most effective medical source statements contain specific restrictions on what you can do, physically and mentally, and are supported by evidence in your medical record. For example, if your doctor doesn't think you should be lifting more than ten pounds, the opinion should refer to objective imaging (such as an X-ray or MRI) that shows something wrong with your neck, shoulders, arms, or back.
Your doctor's opinion helps the SSA decide whether any jobs exist that you can do despite your functional limitations. (You can bring your doctor a residual functional capacity form to fill out if they prefer not to write a letter.) You can also submit letters from friends, family, and former employers that describe your limitations.
Probably the most intimidating part of the disability hearing for most people is having to take questions from a judge. Fortunately, most ALJ questions follow a predictable format. You should be familiar with the types of questions that ALJs ask and be ready to answer them in a helpful way.
Judges ask you about your activities of daily living to find out what you have trouble doing at home because it's likely that you'd struggle to do similar activities at work. Examples of questions the ALJ might ask you include:
Answering the questions honestly and with an appropriate level of detail is the best way to increase your chances of getting a favorable decision (approval of benefits) from the ALJ.
For more information, see our article on how to answer questions at a disability hearing.
If you're scheduled for a Social Security disability hearing, you should strongly consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney if you don't have one already. Your representative will be able to request and submit your most recent medical records and medical source statements. Your lawyer will also prepare you for questioning by the ALJ.
You can find a disability attorney or advocate near you using our lawyer locator tool here.
Updated December 28, 2022
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