Should You Bring a Witness to Your Disability Appeal Hearing?

You aren't required to bring witnesses to your disability hearing, but sometimes they can be helpful to your case.

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

Disability claims are decided mainly based on the strength of your medical records and your functional limitations. At your disability hearing, you'll have the opportunity to talk with a judge about how your medical conditions affect your activities of daily living and keep you from working full-time.

Because the focus of the hearing is on you and why you're disabled, judges typically only need to ask questions of you and a vocational expert. Having friends or family members testify at your hearing won't usually provide any new information that a judge can't already get from your answers. For this reason, most disability claimants (applicants) don't need to bring any witnesses to their hearing.

In rare instances, however, you may benefit from bringing somebody who is willing to testify in support of your case. If you plan to bring a witness to your hearing, you should let the Social Security Administration (SSA) know as soon as possible.

Who Should Bring a Witness to a Social Security Hearing

Generally, a witness should only be at a hearing if they can add insight into why you're disabled that can't be obtained through the medical records or your own testimony. It's ultimately up to the judge to determine whether to allow your witness to testify, and they usually don't think it's necessary.

The key factor should be whether you're able to effectively communicate your limitations to the judge without help. Simply not wanting to testify isn't enough of a reason for the judge to allow somebody else to tell your story. But if you're missing pieces of the story due to your medical conditions, the judge is more likely to want a witness who can help fill in the gaps.

Here are some examples where a witness might be helpful to have at your hearing:

  • You have a sensory condition (such as a speech, hearing, or visual impediment) that makes it difficult for other people to understand you.
  • Your medical impairment involves loss of consciousness or awareness, such as epileptic seizures or manic episodes.
  • You have a cognitive or mental disorder that causes you to be unresponsive to (or confused by) simple questions.
  • You're under 18 years old (in which case your parent or guardian should testify).

Judges don't often let you bring in witnesses for moral support if they're not going to testify, although you're certainly welcome to have other people with you in the pre-hearing conference room with your attorney (if you have one). Let anybody who comes with you to pre-hearing prep know that they'll likely have to remain in the waiting area outside the hearing room while your hearing is conducted, which should take about one hour.

How to Choose a Witness

Anybody with first-hand knowledge of your medical impairments and functional limitations can be a witness. For example, a friend who's seen you have major epileptic seizures could testify about how you behave during the seizure, since you'd (presumably) be unable to tell the judge. Or you might ask a former employer to testify about the decline in your job performance after a traumatic brain injury.

You want a witness who can bring something new to the table, not rehash information already in evidence. Make sure that your witness is a reliable source who won't contradict what you have to say—for instance, you don't want a cousin, who might be distracted by video games while you struggle to climb the stairs, to tell the judge that you "get around fine." Spouses can shed light on how your condition affects important (but potentially embarrassing) personal topics, such as hygiene.

Unless your case is exceptionally complicated, you should limit yourself to one witness. And if you think that your witness can convey the same information with a written support letter—also called a third-party function report—you should do that instead. You can submit several third-party function reports, but don't swamp the judge with redundant information. (Learn more in our article on sample witness letters for your disability hearing.)

How Your Witness Testifies At Your Disability Hearing

If you're bringing a witness, you have the responsibility of making sure they show up at the correct date and time of your hearing. Ideally, your judge will already be aware of your plans to bring a witness and will agree to hear their testimony, but the judge doesn't have to let them testify even if you brought it up in advance.

Assuming that the judge allows witness testimony, your witness will go into the hearing room with you and be sworn in under oath. The judge will then ask your witness questions, including how long they've known you, what their relationship is to you, and how often they see you. The purpose of these questions is to establish your witness as knowledgeable about your daily life.

After completing these preliminary questions, the judge will usually ask the witness questions about what kinds of tasks they see you struggling with or how your relationship has changed since your condition began. You can help prepare your witness' testimony by reviewing some examples of typically asked questions and helpful answers.

Your witness should be able to discuss how your medical condition limits your activities, physically and mentally. Common questions that they should expect to answer include:

  • Can you plan and cook a simple meal?
  • Can you run errands by yourself and return home without getting lost?
  • Do you have trouble remembering appointments?
  • Can you bathe and dress yourself?
  • Can you drive or take public transportation independently?
  • Do you get along well with other people?

Often these questions are more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. A good way for your witness to give the judge a full picture of your limitations is to start with a "Yes, but," or a "No, because," and then briefly provide additional context. For example, if the judge asks your witness if you drive to the store, your witness might say "Yes, but only for short trips of less than a mile, and I often have to come along to help carry any groceries heavier than a half gallon of milk."

Learn More About Disability Hearings

To learn more about handling witnesses and experts at your hearing, see Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability, by David A. Morton, M.D., a former medical consultant for Social Security. You can also review the articles in our section covering what happens before, during, and after a disability hearing for additional information.

Updated January 26, 2024

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