What Happens at a Social Security Disability Hearing?

The ALJ may ask questions of a vocational expert, a medical expert, and you.

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Social Security disability hearings are typically short and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. While many SSD claimants mistakenly assume that their hearing will be similar to a court appearance, ALJ hearings tend to be somewhat informal. In fact, disability lawyers usually advise their clients to dress for their hearing as they would normally dress (but no hats, tank tops, or revealing clothing).

Even though the hearing is informal, the judge may wear a black robe and sit on an elevated platform. But depending on how far away the applicant lives from the hearing office, the "hearing site" may actually be a conference room at a hotel or bank, and could be held by video conferencing (although you have the right to request an in-person hearing).

A vocational expert (VE) will usually be at your hearing, as well as a court reporter. Sometimes there will be a medical expert there as well. You can also bring witnesses to testify to your limitations.

The court reporter will swear in you, the VE, and any witnesses. The judge may begin by asking you questions about your past work and your limitations. Then the ALJ will ask the VE hypothetical questions about what jobs someone with your limitations could do. For more information, read our article on the importance of vocational expert testimony at hearings.

If the judge hasn't asked you any questions by the end of the hearing, he or she may invite you to speak. If not, you can ask if you can say a few words, and then describe how your limitations prevent you from working.

Again, the hearing is short, so be sure to be on time. ALJs have a busy schedule and, typically, will not hear an applicant's case if they show up too late for their hearing. How late is too late will depend on the ALJ in question and how densely packed their hearing schedule is for the day. In some cases, arriving more than ten minutes late will be enough for an ALJ to refuse to hear a claimant's case. However, you should always try to arrive at a hearing location at least 30 minutes prior to the start of a hearing to get properly situated.

If you do arrive too late for a hearing, you can respond to a "show cause" notice and explain why you were late. Providing an acceptable reason for appearing late (traffic problems, car problems, or getting lost) may allow a judge to reschedule your hearing to a later date.

Learn what happens after a disability hearing.

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