How to Answer Questions at a Social Security Disability Hearing

A disability hearing doesn't have to be unpleasant or intimidating, if you're prepared to answer the judge's questions.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

The prospect of answering questions from an administrative law judge (ALJ) at a Social Security disability hearing can be intimidating, no matter how well prepared you are. If you have a hearing scheduled, you're probably wondering how many questions you'll be asked and how you should answer. You might even be worried that the ALJ is going to ask you "trick" questions that will trip you up and hurt your claim for benefits.

The reality is that disability hearings are typically uneventful. Hearings are usually completed in under one hour (most last about 30-45 minutes), and you should expect to answer questions for about half of that time. (Read about what happens at a disability hearing here.)

While no two hearing experiences will be the same, you should follow some general guidelines to make the process easier and increase the chance that your claim for disability benefits will be approved.

No Questions Are Trick Questions When You're Prepared

The key to answering questions at a disability hearing is to understand that the ALJ is not there to "trick" you into admitting that you can work. Social Security hearings are non-adversarial proceedings, which means that a jury or opposing counsel (lawyer for Social Security) won't be there. The ALJ's goal for the hearing is to better understand what's going on in your life and use what they learn from your answers to determine whether you're disabled according to the agency's rules.

Here are eight tips for answering questions at the hearing:

1) Answer the Question You're Asked

ALJs tend to use a set of specific questions that they like to ask in a particular order. Many claimants (applicants), perhaps worried that they won't get a chance to follow up on a judge's question, start answering a question that the ALJ hasn't yet asked, which can get the judge off-track and at risk of missing important information.

Pay attention to the question the ALJ has asked you and try to answer only that question in a sentence or two. It can be helpful to take notes on a piece of paper or, if you didn't understand or hear the question, ask the ALJ to restate or explain the question for you.

2) Don't Ramble or Go Off Subject

For almost all claimants, a hearing is the first and only opportunity they have for a face-to-face meeting with the person who will be deciding their disability claim. Because it can take several years to get a hearing in front of an ALJ, many people are understandably eager to tell their story.

Unfortunately, eagerness can sometimes get in the way of letting the judge learn useful facts that can be critical to a claim. Avoid going off-topic with irrelevant information—now is not the time to air any grievances about your doctors or the disability process, or to discuss aspects of your background unrelated to disability. Providing brief answers helps the hearing proceed more efficiently and decreases the likelihood that the judge will become irritated and interrupt you.

If you have an attorney, ask to practice answering questions before the hearing, so that you can get comfortable with answering them. During the hearing, if you find yourself starting to drift away from the topic of the question, stop, take a deep breath, and refocus your answer. ALJs will normally allow you to pause and compose your thoughts if you need to.

3) Be Specific About Your Symptoms and Limitations

Specific answers give an ALJ a clear picture of your impairments. For example, if you suffer from back problems and the judge asks you to describe the pain, use descriptive words like "burning," "tingling," "aching," "shooting," or "dull." Pinpointing the exact location and intensity of your pain creates a full picture in the ALJ's mind about how your pain affects you. The more precise you can be, the more certain the judge can be that your symptoms are consistent with your medical condition.

Because the ALJ needs to fully understand your limitations in order to properly assess your residual functional capacity, steer clear of using overly vague terms like "not long," "not much," or "not a lot," as those phrases can mean different things to different people. Social Security ALJs love numbers, so if the judge asks you how long you can walk, make sure you answer with a quantity, like "15 minutes," "two blocks," or however long it is you can walk before you can't walk anymore. If you're not sure about a number, use a common object (such as lifting a gallon of milk) for reference.

4) Be Ready to Explain Gaps in Your Medical History

Many disability applicants have stretches of time during which they received little or no medical treatment. ALJs ask questions about these gaps in care. Be prepared to give an honest answer as to why you didn't seek treatment. If you didn't have health insurance during that time, tell the ALJ. Judges are aware that medical treatment can be prohibitively expensive, and don't expect you to get treatment that you can't afford.

If your symptoms briefly improved during the time you didn't see a doctor, say so. Explain the circumstances that helped your condition improve, and let the judge know if your symptoms later worsened again.

5) Be Prepared to Explain "Bad" Facts

Medical records sometimes contain what disability lawyers call "bad" facts. Bad facts can hurt your case if they aren't handled properly. Examples of bad facts include references to drug-seeking behavior, malingering ("faking it"), or being the subject of a CDI (anti-fraud) investigation.

If your record has bad facts, don't just hope that nobody notices—the judge definitely will, and will ask you questions about it. Don't deny the problem or try to blame it on a medical provider. The best way to handle bad facts is to address them head-on. With more context, bad facts don't have to hurt your claim.

For example, people who suffer from chronic pain are often prescribed opioids, which are highly addictive. If a disability claimant is going through pain medication quickly and returning to the doctor for refills too frequently, the medical records may state that the claimant is suspected of abusing pain medication. If the claimant explains that yes, they had a problem with the pain medication, but the doctor prescribed a different one to minimize the possibility of addiction, the ALJ reviewing the record would likely be satisfied.

(For more information on how prescription drug use can affect your claim, see our article on whether you can get disability if you are suspected of drug overuse.)

6) Paint a Picture of Your Daily Living

The most substantive part of the hearing, and your best opportunity to explain your limitations in detail, is when the ALJ asks you about your activities of daily living (ADLs). Answering these questions thoroughly is one of the most important ways you can increase your chances that the ALJ will approve your claim.

Judges often begin the ADLs discussion with an open-ended question, such as "Tell me what you do on a typical day." Resist the temptation to answer with "Nothing" or "Not a whole lot." In casual conversation, saying you did "nothing" today usually means that you didn't do anything notable—you didn't just sit and stare at the wall, but you don't think that brushing your teeth or getting dressed was worth mentioning. Those are exactly the types of activities the ALJ wants you to talk about at the hearing!

ALJs almost always ask about very basic activities like getting dressed, doing chores, and preparing meals. When the judge is asking you these questions, try to visualize yourself doing activities in your mind. ALJs are very interested in any difficulties you have navigating your physical environment, so it can be helpful for them to understand the layout of where you live.

For example, if you have mobility issues, you might have trouble doing laundry because the washing machine is down a hallway and several stairs from the bedroom. Or, you might be able to do laundry, but only because the washing machine is right next to the bedroom. These distinctions can make the difference between a favorable and unfavorable decision.

7) Don't Be Embarrassed About Your Limitations

When the ALJ asks you about your daily activities, you might feel embarrassed about your answer. People with incontinence issues, for example, can be reluctant to respond to a judge's question about maintaining hygiene.

Personal topics such as sexual activity, drug use, and mental health all fall under the umbrella of "activities of daily living," and it's important to recognize that you might be asked questions about them at the hearing.

ALJs are trained to approach these topics in a sensitive and respectful manner. The judge won't berate or mock you for an honest response to a personal question. If you're feeling too embarrassed to answer a question the ALJ is asking, let them know. The ALJ will likely sympathize with you and, if possible, rephrase the question in a more delicate way.

You might be reassured to know that the hearing is not open to the public, so the only people who will be listening to your testimony are the judge, the hearing room monitor, your representative, and potentially one or two other professionals (like a vocational or medical expert).

8) Be Honest and Don't Exaggerate

The most important way to answer an ALJ's questions is with honesty. Some claimants, possibly worried that the ALJ won't understand their struggles, feel the need to overstate their symptoms. But exaggeration usually has the opposite effect. You don't need to be totally bedridden to qualify for disability, and judges will be skeptical if you're reporting extreme symptoms that would realistically require lengthy hospitalization.

For example, if the ALJ asks you to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten on an average day, it would be unwise to answer that your daily pain is at a ten. In the judge's eyes, somebody experiencing such an intense level of pain would be in the emergency room, not at home. Rating daily pain at a five, six, or seven is more credible, and the ALJ will be more inclined to believe you when you describe actions that worsen your pain (because you didn't already max out the pain scale).

Try to strike a balance when answering the ALJ's questions about your symptoms and limitations. Many disability claimants can honestly answer "Yes" when the ALJ asks whether they go grocery shopping. But if you can go to the store only during odd hours because you have severe anxiety around other people, tell the judge "Yes, but with restrictions." Those answers are more realistic to judges than an outright "No, never" that leaves them wondering how you're able to eat.

Legal Representation at Your Hearing Can Help

Attending a disability hearing can be a stressful experience, even if everything goes smoothly. Many claimants find it helpful to have an experienced disability attorney or non-attorney representative with them at the hearing.

Your advocate will review your medical record, conduct pre-hearing preparation, and answer any legal questions from the judge. A representative will also be able to ask questions of the vocational expert who will likely be present. For more information, see our article on the reasons having a disability attorney can help you win at your hearing.

More Tips for Your Hearing

Here are some more tips that can help you have a successful disability hearing:

Updated June 8, 2022

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