What Happens After Your Disability Hearing?

Here's how to tell if your disability hearing went well—and what happens next.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Many Social Security disability applicants have waited a year or more to have a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ) and are understandably eager to get a decision as soon as possible. Because it takes time for the judge to thoroughly review your application ("claim") and write a decision, you might not learn the status of your claim for several months after you've attended the hearing.

The waiting period can be nerve-wracking as you wonder if you'll receive an approval or denial. Knowing a bit about the "behind the scenes" decision-making process can go a long way to relieve common feelings of anxiety over not knowing whether you won or lost your disability hearing.

How Do I Know If My Disability Hearing Went Well?

Unless the ALJ issues a "bench decision"—meaning they tell you during the hearing that your case will be approved— it can be difficult to guess with 100% certainty what decision the judge will make. But there may be signs that suggest whether your hearing went well or not.

Signs You Won or Lost Your Disability Hearing

While you can't read the judge's mind, you can sometimes read between the lines for signs that you're likely to win (or lose) your hearing. These signs aren't foolproof, however—even experienced disability attorneys can be caught off-guard with a decision that didn't go the way they expected based on certain signs at the hearing.

Signs You Won Your Hearing for SSDI or SSI Benefits

Broadly speaking, the shorter your hearing, the better your chances of getting benefits. Short hearings generally mean that your claim is about as "open and shut" as it gets. Here are some signs of a good hearing.

  • Your hearing was very short. Most hearings are scheduled in 45- to 60-minute blocks. This gives the ALJ enough time to ask you in-depth questions about your health conditions, daily routine, and work history. But if your hearing lasts only 5-15 minutes, this means the ALJ doesn't have many questions for you—probably because your medical record very strongly indicates that you're disabled, and the judge only needed to clarify a few details about your claim.
  • The vocational testimony was short. Vocational experts (VEs) are independent specialists who contract with the Social Security Administration (SSA) to answer judges' questions about jobs. If the judge asks the VE only one question and the VE says that you can't do your past work—and that no other jobs are available that you can do—the judge is likely to approve your claim for benefits.
  • The medical expert testimony was short. Social Security uses a disability evaluation handbook (the "Blue Book") that contains criteria specific to certain medical conditions. These criteria are called "listings." If a medical expert says that you "meet (or equal) a listing," it means that the expert found all of the criteria for disability in your medical records, and you'll likely be awarded disability benefits.

Signs That You Lost Your Disability Hearing

Finding signs that you lost your hearing is trickier than finding signs that you won. You'll have better luck with an attorney who's familiar with your ALJ's particular quirks in detecting them. The following signs don't necessarily mean that you lost your hearing—it depends on the judge—but they can provide your lawyer with clues as to how your case will turn out.

  • The vocational expert came up with lots of jobs. If the judge asks a lot of questions from the VE and none of them result in testimony that you can't work, it's likely that the judge is going to find that you can perform certain jobs (and deny your claim).
  • You weren't prepared for the judge's questions. Your testimony can make or break your disability hearing, especially if your medical records aren't very strong. While it's normal to get nervous or flustered at the hearing, if you're too vague about your functional limitations or don't address any "bad facts" in your claim, the ALJ won't have the information they need to find you disabled.
  • You're over 50 and have transferable skills. Under the medical-vocational grid rules, Social Security can't find you disabled if you acquired skills at your past jobs that you can use at a different kind of work. If the VE says that you have transferable skills and you don't challenge their conclusion, the judge might accept that you can do other work and deny your claim.

Many claimants assume that having a "nice" judge is a sign that they'll be approved for benefits, or that having a "mean" judge signals a denial. But the ALJ's demeanor isn't a good predictor of how they'll decide your case. Some judges appear very warm and welcoming, while others are more "straight-to-business." Neither personality makes an ALJ more or less likely to approve a case. Judges, regardless of their mood or personality, apply Social Security's rules to the facts of your case to make a decision.

Timeline for a Social Security Hearing Decision

After your disability hearing, your file will remain at the hearing office until the ALJ can make a decision on your claim. Any "post-hearing development" that the judge needs in order to determine whether you're disabled will occur at this stage. Keep in mind that the length of time it takes to receive the judge's decision isn't a reliable indicator of approval or denial.

What Happens in Post-Hearing Development?

Not all claims are fully "developed"—meaning they contain all the information needed for the ALJ to determine disability—in time for the hearing. When this happens, the judge will postpone making a decision until the information can be received and reviewed.

For example, the ALJ may have mentioned at your hearing that the record will be "left open" for any outstanding medical evidence. This is fairly common, and provides you or your legal representative with extra time to obtain important documents such as X-rays or MRIs, doctors' opinions, or surgical notes. Most ALJs will leave the record open for a few weeks—sometimes longer if the documents are difficult to obtain.

Why Did My ALJ Schedule Another Hearing? Is a Supplemental Hearing Good or Bad?

Sometimes a judge needs to ask you additional questions after reviewing medical evidence that came in after your hearing was held. These "supplemental hearings" aren't usually as long as your first hearing because the ALJ doesn't need to repeat the same information that was already covered.

Supplemental hearings aren't necessarily a bad sign. They give you another opportunity to explain to the ALJ why your medical records support a finding of disability, this time with more recent evidence. You may even have a medical expert present at your second hearing with the ALJ if you didn't have one at your first hearing, which could increase your chances of winning. A downside, however, is that supplemental hearings increase the time it takes to get a decision.

How Long After the Hearing Does It Take to Get a Decision?

There's no hard and fast rule for determining how long your claim will be in post-hearing development. If your file is pretty much complete, the ALJ can make a decision sooner. But if you have a lot of missing documents or your case is particularly complex, you may have to wait a while before the judge is ready to decide your claim.

While the ALJ is the only person who can decide your disability claim, judges have a staff of attorneys who write the full decision based on instructions provided by the ALJ. Some hearing offices are short-staffed, swamped with cases, or dealing with a backlog, which can delay a decision on your claim. Ultimately, the judge will conduct a final review of the written decision and enter it into Social Security's case processing and management system. Once that happens, you'll receive a written decision in the mail.

I Won My Social Security Disability Hearing, Now What?

If your disability claim was approved, you'll receive two important notices: the "Notice of Decision" (fully or partially favorable) and the "Notice of Award." The Notice of Decision tells you that you meet Social Security's medical definition of disability—meaning you have a severe impairment that keeps you from working full-time for at least one year—while the Notice of Award tells you what benefits you're eligible for.

Favorable Notice of Decisions are sent from the hearing office to a payment center or field office that calculates the amount of benefits you'll receive. You might get a call from a Social Security representative who'll ask you questions about your finances, such as your bank accounts, income level, or other government benefits. Because SSI is a needs-based program, the Social Security representative needs to make sure that your resources are still below the eligibility limits before calculating any payments. (SSDI is based on work credits and is a little less complicated for Social Security to pay.)

Once those calculations are complete—and your eligibility for SSDI or SSI is established—you'll receive a Notice of Award. The award letter will have a section with the date you can expect your monthly disability benefits to start, the amount you'll receive every month, and any back pay you're owed. (Click here for an example of a Notice of Award for SSDI benefits.)

You should begin to receive payments within one to two months, depending on your established onset date. SSI payments usually take longer to start than SSDI payments due to the calculations involved. If you were approved for both SSI and SSDI, your back payments may be delayed a bit because the field office must work with the payment center to figure out your past-due benefits.

What If I Disagree With the Judge's Decision?

If you disagree with the ALJ's decision—either because the judge denied you benefits, dismissed your claim, or you disagree with your established onset date—you can request review by the Appeals Council. You have 60 days after you receive the Notice of Decision (Unfavorable) to submit your appeal.

You can read more about the Appeals Council in our following detailed articles:

If you're not sure it's worth it to appeal one more time or start over—since you're no longer allowed to have an Appeals Council review and a new disability application open at the same time—consider talking to an experienced disability attorney or advocate. Your lawyer can help you weigh the pros and cons of any further appeals and advise you on your next steps.

Updated January 18, 2024

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