How to Write a Prehearing Brief for Your Disability Appeal

Giving the disability judge a summary of the points you want to make can help your disability appeal.

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

A single disability application file can contain hundreds—or even thousands—of pages of evidence, including large amounts of medical records. Medical records are frequently disorganized, duplicated, or just difficult to read, and important information can get overlooked.

Submitting a written letter to the administrative law judge (ALJ) prior to your hearing allows you to draw the ALJ's attention to the strongest medical evidence and allows you to persuade the judge that your application ("claim") should be approved. Disability applicants usually hire a lawyer to write a "prehearing brief," but if you have good writing skills, you can try to write your own.

What Is a Prehearing Brief for Social Security?

A prehearing brief is a two-to-three page letter that you send to the judge before your hearing to describe when your conditions began, what your diagnoses are, and the medical evidence that shows your condition is disabling. Click the sample prehearing brief below for an example of what an ALJ expects to see in a prehearing brief from a disability applicant.

What Are the Benefits of Writing a Prehearing Brief?

ALJs don't always expect a prehearing brief to review, but most judges appreciate one. Prehearing briefs act as an outline of the disability claim and can provide the ALJ with valuable information at a quick glance, making it easier for the judge to conduct the hearing.

Here are some benefits of a prehearing brief:

  • You get to control how you present your case. By highlighting the strongest evidence and putting weaker evidence into context, you can structure how the ALJ views your narrative—the how, why, and when you became disabled.
  • You're putting the most important information at the ALJ's fingertips. Don't let the ALJ wade through hundreds of pages of doctors' notes in order to find an MRI showing severe disc degeneration when you can point to it in your brief.
  • You can present multiple reasons why you should be found disabled. If you think that your condition might meet a listing but you also want the ALJ to know that you can't do even the easiest sit-down job, you can address both rationales in your brief.

How to Write a Disability Appeal Prehearing Brief

Before you start writing your prehearing brief, you'll need to request and review your disability exhibit file from Social Security. Your file contains all your relevant medical records and procedural history (what's happened in your case), arranged into exhibits for easy reference. Mention the exhibits by number (such as "Exhibit 2F") whenever possible in your brief.

Your prehearing brief doesn't have to be longer than two or three pages. Address your brief to the judge who has been assigned to your case and send it to the Social Security Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) handling your case. Send it at least a week before your hearing.

Your brief should contain the following elements:

Here is a sample prehearing brief from a disability applicant.

Identifying Information and a Short Introduction

The first part of your brief should provide basic identification including your name, Social Security number, date of birth, educational level, and hearing date. You can also state a short list of what your disabling conditions are along with the date you became disabled.

Procedural History

The procedural history section gives the ALJ a quick overview of important dates related to your claim. Include the date you submitted your application for disability and your date last insured (if your claim is for SSDI benefits). You might also include the dates your application was denied at the lower levels of review (initial application and reconsideration).

Sequential Evaluation Process

The Social Security Administration (SSA) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to decide whether you qualify for disability benefits. You should briefly discuss each step as it relates to your claim.

Here are the main issues to address at each step:

  • Step One. State whether you've worked at all since your alleged onset date of disability. If you haven't worked above substantial gainful activity (SGA), just say as much. If you have been working, you can use this section to explain why your earnings don't count as SGA or if they should be considered as an unsuccessful work attempt.
  • Step Two. Identify the medical conditions, both mental and physical, that are preventing you from working, and mention the exhibit in the file containing evidence of a diagnosis.
  • Step Three. If you think your medical issues might meet one of Social Security's Blue Book listings, state the listing name and number. If your doctor has submitted a medical opinion supporting your argument, include the exhibit number here.
  • Step Four. Briefly describe the jobs you've had within the past 15 years and explain why you're unable to return to any of those jobs.
  • Step Five. Focus on the limitations you have that prevent you from doing any other type of work, not just the ones you've done before. If you're over the age of 50, explain why you should be found disabled according to the medical-vocational grid rules.

Relevant Medical Evidence

Usually the longest part of your brief, the medical evidence section should summarize several years—and likely hundreds of pages—of your medical records into a few paragraphs that tell the ALJ the most crucial information about your health and medical history.

Deciding which information to include can be difficult. You should prioritize the following:

  • favorable medical opinions from your regular doctors
  • objective tests, lab results, and imaging (like MRIs, X-rays, CT scans), and
  • surgical procedures or hospitalizations.

You might also want to include starting a new type of medication—especially if it causes significant side effects—or seeing a specialist such as a neurologist or a cardiologist.

Don't spend too much time mentioning routine doctor's visits that don't provide any new insight into your condition. While these notes demonstrate your need for ongoing medical care, individually they tend to provide only minimal information (such as "established patient presents for fibromyalgia").


In a few sentences, briefly sum up the main points of your argument and the supporting evidence. Thank the judge for their time and sign your name.

Consider Contacting a Disability Attorney for Help

You may want help writing a prehearing brief. An experienced disability attorney will usually understand best how to craft the most convincing prehearing brief for the ALJ in your case, and also how to develop your medical record ahead of the hearing.

Updated October 17, 2022

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