Social Security disability hearings can be stressful, because you have waited so long for a judge to hear your case and you don't know whether you will win or lose your claim for disability benefits (SSDI or SSI). Here are some steps that you can take before, during, and after the hearing in order to improve your chances of winning.
The hearing office, called the Office of Hearings Operations, or OHO, is required to give you 75 days' notice of your hearing date. (In the past, the hearing office gave notice about 20-30 days before the hearing date.) This gives you more time to get your evidence in line and prepare for your hearing.
If you have new medical evidence, such as doctor's records of recent medical exams, submit it to the hearing office well before the hearing. If you haven't been to the doctor, consider making an appointment. The administrative law judge (ALJ) will want to see current medical records—no more than 60-90 days old.
New medical evidence that is submitted in advance of the hearing will be reviewed by the ALJ before the hearing. ALJs like to have the opportunity to review the new information before the hearing so they can come up with and ask questions about the new evidence at the hearing. In fact, Social Security has instituted a new "5-day rule" for evidence. It used to be that you could bring new evidence to the hearing, but now you have to submit it five days in advance of the hearing. If it's really not possible to submit the new medical evidence before the hearing, or if you get new lab results the day before the hearing, bring it with you to the hearing (this is better than not submitting it all all).
You or your lawyer should submit a "brief" (a short document showing why you should win your case) outlining the new medical evidence and show how it applies to the standards required by Social Security for disability benefits. You should submit the brief at least ten days before the hearing so that the ALJ has time to review it. If you are trying to show that your medical condition meets the requirements of a disability listing, in your brief, be sure to address every point of the listing and speak about the medical evidence you have that specifically meets each requirement of the listing. Refer to specific medical records when addressing each part of the listing.
At the hearing, it's important to remember that this is a legal proceeding. Wearing clothes that are appropriate (clothes do not need to be fancy but they should be modest and neat), being on time, being polite, and following all of the judges directions are some of the things that you should do. While the decision is made based mainly on your medical record and the testimony of a vocational expert, it is always helpful to stay on the ALJ's good side.
The ALJ will have the opportunity to ask you questions at your hearing. It is important that you are prepared to answer these questions. Before your hearing, look over your application and all of the evidence that you have provided to Social Security. Look carefully at the information and be ready to answer questions about weaknesses in your cases. For example, if you are claiming to have depression but are not taking medication for it, be prepared to answer why you are not taking medication. If you have an attorney, the attorney will prepare you for the questioning by practicing with you before the hearing.
Consider asking an individual who knows you, who can talk about your abilities and struggles to be a witness at your hearing. Generally, it's appropriate to have one or two witnesses who can speak about the daily struggles that you face. For example, you may want a co-worker and a roommate to testify about struggles at work and at home. Each witness should be able to testify to about your abilities and limitations. This is especially important where you can't testify yourself about the symptoms of your condition, as with a seizure disorder.
There is no need to have multiple witnesses testify about the same limitations (such as having two roommates as witnesses who will testify to the same things); such repetition will not help your case and will take up extra time in the ALJ's already busy schedule.
At the hearing, you or your lawyer will need to introduce the witnesses and have the witnesses explain how they know you and the length of time they have known you. Once you establish that the witness is a good person to speak about your abilities and limitations, be prepared to ask the witness specific questions about things the witness has seen you struggle with. If there are specific limitations you would like your witness to testify to, make sure that you ask the witness questions that will lead them to bringing up the specific limitations. For example, if your witness is your roommate and you want him or her to testify about your difficulty performing household chores due to pain, you can ask the witness if he or she has noticed you struggling with any specific activities at the house. If the witness mentions household chores, you can ask them to be more specific about the household chores you struggle with. While the ALJ may ask all of the questions and you may not need to ask any questions, it is important to be prepared to do all of the questioning in case the ALJ doesn't.
It can be very helpful to have a disability lawyer represent you during a hearing, as they are familiar with how hearings proceed and questions that may be asked of you and your witnesses, as well as the medical evidence you should have ready. Recently we asked readers who had been to a hearing what the outcome was, and only 23% of those who represented themselves were approved for benefits, while 50% of those who brought a lawyer to the hearing were approved (almost three-quarters brought a lawyer to the hearing). For more details, see our survey statistics about the likelihood of getting approved after a hearing.
A vocational expert (VE) will most likely be at your hearing to give an opinion about what jobs you can do. A VE's testimony is rarely helpful to a disability applicant, and can be harmful. For instance, a VE could testify that someone with your condition and limitations could do light work, and could name several lights jobs that you could do. You'll need to be able to dispute the VE's testimony by asking the right questions, which is very difficult to do without a lawyer. For more information, see our article on cross-examining the VE at your hearing.
Medical experts, who are usually doctors or psychologists, attend hearings much less frequently. The judge may request a medical expert if he or she thinks you may "equal" the requirements of a disability listing. Medical experts can be either harmful to your case (for instance, by saying that your impairment does not affect your mental abilities) or helpful (for instance, by saying that your heart condition is so severe that it meets the requirements of a disability listing). According to a recent government report, when medical experts were present at a hearing, claimants were 160% more likely to be approved for benefits. Either way, you should have an attorney present to cross-examine the medical expert to make the most of it.
If there are questions that come up at the hearing that you feel could be answered better through a written explanation, you (or your lawyer) can ask the ALJ if you can submit a brief to clarify certain points of your case. If the ALJ allows this, the brief should be done as quickly as possible and should address only the particular question that you were given permission to given written clarification about.