Social Security disability hearings can be stressful. Your application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) has already been denied twice, and you've waited on average two years or more for an administrative law judge to hear your case.
For most disability applicants ("claimants"), the hearing is the only time during the disability determination process that they can speak directly to the person who will decide their claim. And since most people who are awarded benefits don't win their claim until after they've had a hearing, you'll want to take advantage of the opportunity to present your best case.
You don't need to have representation for your Social Security hearing, although having an attorney or advocate greatly increases your chances of successfully proving your disability claim. If you're planning on going it alone, here are some steps that you can take before, during, and after the hearing in order to improve your chances of winning.
Many disability claims are "won" before the hearing begins. Having a solid medical foundation and a good grasp on the legal reasons behind your claim increases the odds that an administrative law judge (ALJ) will agree that you're disabled.
Your hearing will be scheduled—and likely conducted—at Social Security's Office of Hearings Operations (OHO). OHO will send you a notice with the time, date, and location of your hearing. The office is required to notify you at least 75 days before your hearing, so that you have enough time to gather and submit all new medical evidence.
If you received your notice of hearing less than 75 days before the scheduled date, call OHO and let them know that you don't waive the 75-day notice requirement. Because obtaining medical evidence can be complicated, you'll want as much time as possible before your hearing to make sure you have all your ducks in a row.
Social Security wants to see that you've been receiving recent (within the past 60-90 days) medical treatment. The ALJ will be looking at your doctor's notes for evidence of examination results, X-rays or MRIs, lab tests, and medication prescriptions.
Medical records can get lengthy, and ALJs like to review new information before the hearing so they can ask you specific questions about what they find. You should aim to submit all your medical evidence at least five days before your hearing date. Judges aren't required to admit evidence submitted too close to the hearing, although most ALJs will give you a grace period if you can show that you really couldn't get the records in on time.
You should submit a "pre-hearing brief" that outlines the most important medical evidence in your case and shows how it meets the standards for Social Security disability benefits.
At the bare minimum, your brief should contain:
For more information, see our article on how to write a prehearing brief for your disability appeal.
Social Security disability hearings are informal proceedings. Unlike legal TV shows, you won't be yelled at by an opposing attorney or have to sit in front of a jury. But you still want to put forth your best impression for the judge. Wear appropriate clothing, be on time, follow the judge's directions, and remain polite to help the hearing process go smoothly.
You should be prepared to answer questions from the ALJ at your hearing. While ALJs will tailor their inquiry to your specific application, have answers for some commonly asked questions, including:
Judges will often ask you about weaknesses or "bad facts" in your application, giving you an opportunity to explain them with added context. Examples of "bad facts" can include:
You should address any weaknesses in your record at the hearing. For example, if you didn't take a prescribed medication because it was too expensive, let the ALJ know. Judges don't expect you to pay for medical treatment you can't afford, and will be more likely to find you disabled than somebody who didn't take medication because they felt fine.
Judges don't often allow your friends and family to act as witnesses, preferring to hear your testimony directly from you. But for conditions where you aren't always capable of reliably talking about your limitations—such as during a seizure or manic episode—having a caregiver describe how you're acting can be helpful.
If the ALJ agrees to let you bring a witness, you should ask the witness a few preliminary questions including how long they've known you and how frequently you're in contact. You should then ask them questions only about struggles that they've personally seen. For example, if you have a relative who's been present to help you during a seizure, they should describe what (if anything) happened to cause the seizure, how long it lasted for, and how you recovered afterward.
You don't need to have multiple witnesses testify about the same limitations. Doctors and former employers can submit a medical source statement or third-party letter instead of testifying in-person. For more information, see our article on when letters from family and friends can help your disability case.
Vocational experts (VEs) help the judge decide whether any jobs exist that you can do within your residual functional capacity (RFC). The ALJ will ask the VE a series of hypothetical questions about what jobs you could perform with a particular RFC. Usually, the VE will respond with several jobs that you could still do. You'll then need to cross-examine the VE's testimony by asking the right questions to rule out those, and potentially all, jobs.
Medical experts (MEs), who are usually doctors or psychologists, attend hearings much less frequently. If an ME is at your hearing, it's likely because the ALJ thinks you may equal a disability listing. Medical experts are generally helpful—a recent government report stated that claimants with an ME testifying at a hearing were 160% more likely to be approved for benefits—but an unhelpful ME requires a sophisticated cross-examination.
When the ALJ thinks that your claim has been fully developed (meaning they have all the evidence they need to make a disability determination), you'll receive a written decision from Social Security in about four to eight weeks after your hearing. But if the ALJ needs more information, you might be scheduled for a consultative examination or a supplemental hearing.
In certain circumstances, you might ask the ALJ if you can submit a post-hearing brief to address an important point you missed. If the judge allows this, in the brief you should quickly clarify only the topic that you're given permission to cover, such as your work history—the post-hearing brief isn't an opportunity to "re-testify."
You can win a disability appeal without a lawyer, but it's an uphill battle. Even claimants with the strongest medical records, supportive doctors, and friendly witnesses can miss important appeal deadlines, flub their testimony, or mishandle expert cross-examination.
An experienced attorney or advocate can help you avoid these hurdles. Perhaps most importantly, a disability lawyer will know more about Social Security rules and regulations than even the most motivated claimant. Local representatives will be familiar with the particular quirks of the judges at your OHO, as well as what jobs VEs in your area are likely to come up with and how to rule them out.
If you're worried about affording an attorney, you might be reassured to learn that disability lawyers are required to work on contingency, meaning they don't get paid unless you win your claim. You don't pay them out of pocket—rather, Social Security will set aside a percentage (25% up to $7,200) of your back due benefits to pay your attorney.
Updated February 14, 2023