How should you answer the judge's questions at a disability hearing, and how many questions can you expect to be asked? Sometimes the ALJ will not ask the disability claimant any questions; at other times the ALJ will ask you several questions. But since most hearings will normally be concluded under an hour (some hearings can actually be as short as 15 minutes), you can count on not having to answer questions for an extended time period. (Read about what happens at a disability hearing.)
The prospect of answering an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) questions at a disability hearing can be daunting, no matter how well prepared you are. However, there are some important guidelines you should follow that will make the process go more smoothly and increase the chance that you will be successful with your claim for Social Security disability.
Believe it or not, one of the most common mistakes a disability claimant can make during a hearing is failing to answer the question asked by the ALJ. To avoid this, pay attention to what the ALJ has specifically asked you and try to answer only that question in a sentence or two. It may 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.
For most claimants, the hearing process is a nerve-wracking experience. If, like many of us, you are prone to ramble on when under pressure, it's important that you be especially prepared to provide succinct answers to the ALJ’s questions. When a claimant answers questions with longwinded explanations that stray from the ALJ's question, the ALJ may stop listening and miss important statements you make, or he or she may become irritated and interrupt you.
It may be helpful to practice answering questions with your attorney or a friend. If you find yourself digressing from the topic of the question, stop, take a deep breath, and refocus your answer. If you have an attorney, he or she should either practice the questions with you or provide you with a copy of the questions you are likely to face well before the hearing date so that you can familiarize yourself with them.
Specific answers give an ALJ a clear picture of your impairment. For example, if you suffer from back problems and the ALJ asks you to describe the pain, use descriptive words like “burning,” “tingling,” “aching,” “shooting,” or “dull.” Also clearly describe the location of any pain. This will help paint a picture in the ALJ’s mind about your disability and how it affects you. It will also help the ALJ know if your symptoms are consistent with the recognized symptoms of your medical condition, which can help your credibility.
You must also be specific when describing your limitations. For example, if the ALJ asks you how long you can sit, don’t say "for just a little while," state "30 minutes," or "one hour," or however long it is you can sit without pain. If the ALJ asks whether you can drive and you are in fact able to drive short distances (for example, to your doctor’s office), a good answer would be “I can drive to my doctor’s office, which is about 3 miles away.”
Sometimes, a disability claimant will have periods of time during which he or she received little or no medical treatment. An ALJ will question a claimant about these gaps in care. Be prepared to give an honest answer as to why you didn’t seek treatment. If you were without insurance, state this. If your symptoms briefly improved during that time, it is better to state and explain this than to give an untruthful answer, because once you lose credibility with the judge, you risk losing your disability claim.
Medical records sometimes contain “bad” facts. “Bad” facts can hurt your case if they are not handled properly. For example, one common problem with people who suffer from chronic pain is over-reliance on pain medication. In these cases, medical records may state that the claimant suffers from narcotic dependency or is suspected of abusing pain medication. Here, the worst thing a claimant can do is to deny the problem or try to blame the medical provider. The best answer is the truthful one—for example, that there was a problem with pain medication and you are receiving (or plan to get) treatment for the dependency, or that you switched or reduced medications to minimize the possibility of addiction. (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.)
ALJs often ask disability claimants how their lives have changed since the onset of your impairment. A detailed and descriptive answer to this question can be quite helpful in winning your claim, especially if the ALJ is on the fence about how to decide your case. For example, if you used to go to church every weekend, garden, walk the dog, or play cards with friends, and you can no longer enjoy these activities, tell this to the ALJ. You should also describe how your disability has affected activities like reading books or newspapers or watching television. Chronic pain frequently interferes with concentration to the extent that people are no longer to do even sedentary activities. This is important information for an ALJ to know, because it gives insight into how you would probably function in a work setting.
Whether you need help in your day-to-day life is also important information for the ALJ. If you require assistance from a family member or friend with grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, bill paying, or any other activity of daily living, describe the assistance you receive, how often you receive help, and why you need the assistance. For example, if your disability has affected your memory, focus, or concentration, you may need help handling your finances. This information would be vital to the ALJ because it would indicate that you would have extreme difficulty performing many types of jobs.
It can also be helpful to ask a family member who assists you to be a witness at your hearing or write a letter on your behalf. (For more information, see our article on when letters from family and friends can help your disability case.)
Regardless of your impairment, the ALJ and the vocational expert will discuss information that is highly personal at a disability hearing. Frequently, disability claimants feel understandably embarrassed by symptoms of their disease, tests, procedures, or by treatments they have undergone. Embarrassment is especially common with people who suffer from mental illness or who have impairments that can stem from lifestyle choices, such as HIV or certain types of hepatitis.
However, it is important to remember that ALJs hear hundreds of testimonies a year from disability claimants with every imaginable disability, and that the ALJ's only role is to decide whether you meet the Social Security Administration's definition of disability. Try to set aside any embarrassment so that you can provide the ALJ with accurate answers so that he or she can determine your claim fairly.
The most important way to answer an ALJ’s question is with honesty. Some claimants feel that if they make their symptoms sound worse than they really are, they will have a better chance at winning their claim. However, exaggerating your disability usually has the opposite affect. Remember that ALJs hear hundreds of cases a year. They are well trained in recognizing when a claimant is magnifying the truth. If the ALJ believes you are exaggerating your symptoms, you will lose credibility with the ALJ, and if an ALJ doesn't believe you, you will likely lose your claim for disability benefits.
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. Daily pain that's a five, six, or seven if more believable. However, if there are times when your pain escalates, you should state this (you can say there are times it goes up to a nine or ten) but provide an explanation as to what worsens your symptoms (for example, sitting too long, walking up stairs, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.). Also, when describing your symptoms or pain, avoid phrases like "all the time," "always," "every day," or "constantly" unless they are absolutely accurate.
If you have multiple impairments, be particularly careful about accuracy in your descriptions of your symptoms. If you allege that all of your impairments are extremely severe and you exaggerate pain for one impairment, the judge may note that you have a tendency to exaggerate pain, and this can undermine the validity of other, truly severe impairments whose diagnoses rely wholly or partly on self-reported pain.
Having legal representation at a disability hearing, in the form of an experienced disability lawyer or non-attorney representative, can help you answer the questions in a way that will help support your disability claim rather than possibly undermine it. A disability advocate can provide you with pre-hearing preparation, which will help you avoid answering the judge's questions in a way that may hurt your case and can allay any fears you may have. Additionally and, perhaps, more importantly, a disability representative can answer many of the judge's questions that arise at a disability hearing. Here are some other ways that having a disability lawyer can help you win your hearing.
Here are more tips that can help you have a successful disability hearing: