What Happens at a Social Security Disability Hearing?

Disability hearings are short, informal proceedings where you can explain to a Social Security judge why you can’t work.

Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Because most people who apply for SSDI or SSI disability ("claimants") aren't awarded benefits after their initial application or even after their first appeal, odds are you'll eventually have a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). The prospect of testifying in front of an ALJ can be intimidating, but knowing what to expect and how to prepare for a disability hearing can go a long way to relieve common feelings of stress and anxiety.

What Is a Social Security Disability Hearing?

Social Security disability hearings are informal procedures where you'll have the opportunity to speak with an ALJ about why you think you're unable to work. You can request a hearing after a claim examiner with Disability Determination Services—the state agency that helps process SSDI and SSI claims—has denied your application for benefits at the second level of review, known as reconsideration.

What Can I Expect at My Disability Hearing?

Disability hearings are inquisitive (investigative) instead of adversarial proceedings, meaning they have relaxed rules of evidence, no jury, and no opposing counsel (lawyer for the government). They don't resemble courtroom dramas or reality shows.

The ALJ's goal is to learn more about you and determine whether you qualify for benefits according to the regulations of the Social Security Administration (SSA). You can think of the hearing as a casual conversation where you can let the judge know about your life and your limitations.

Where Will the Disability Hearing Be Held?

Many disability applicants picture their hearing being held in a courthouse, but this is almost never the case. Disability hearings are normally held at a dedicated Social Security Administration hearing office, usually in a run-of-the-mill office building. The building might contain other government agencies and private businesses.

When you receive your notice of hearing, you'll be provided the address of the hearing office closest to you. You could receive travel reimbursement from the SSA, depending on how far away your nearest hearing office is. For more remote areas, hearings can also be held in Social Security field offices.

How Will My Disability Hearing Be Conducted?

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SSA has largely shifted to conducting hearings remotely, whether by telephone or videoconference. You have the right to have your hearing in person, but if you choose, you can testify using your phone or computer. Some applicants find remote methods much easier as they reduce the stress associated with getting to the hearing location on time.

If you prefer to have an in-person hearing, you'll need to show up at the time and location given on your notice of hearing. For most in-person hearings, the judge will be in the room with you as well, but sometimes the ALJ will appear over videoconference. (Having the judge appear remotely is more common if your hearing is held at an SSA field office.) The hearing process is the same regardless of whether one or more people are appearing remotely.

Who Will Be at My Disability Hearing?

Disability hearings are closed to the public, so the few people at your hearing will include you, your representative (if you have one), the ALJ, and the hearing room monitor. The role of the hearing room monitor is to make sure the hearing is recorded properly and to fix any technical difficulties that might arise.

Depending on your case, a vocational expert (VE) and medical expert (ME) might be present as well. VEs are experts on various occupations and are quite common at hearings. They're there to help the judge decide whether enough jobs exist that you'd be able to perform. VEs can be present physically or over the phone.

MEs are doctors but are less common at hearings, and are rarely physically present. Judges can ask MEs questions if they think you might be medically disabled, but need a doctor's opinion.

What Type of Questions Will Be Asked at My Disability Hearing?

The judge won't ask you any questions that you don't already know the answer to. Many ALJs like to start off with a broad "umbrella" question like, "Tell me what you do on a typical day." Then, they'll usually start asking you more detailed questions about your work history, your medical history, and your activities of daily living.

Here's a list of questions the ALJ might ask you:

  • What chores can you do around the house?
  • How much weight can you lift and carry?
  • Why can't you go back to your old job?
  • Do you get along well with other people?
  • What medications do you take?
  • How long can you walk for?
  • When was the last time you worked?
  • Do you take care of any pets?
  • What's the most comfortable physical position for you?

The exact questions the judge will ask you depend on the specifics of your case. If you have a representative, ask to practice answering questions before the hearing—your representative can't testify on your behalf, but they can help prepare you for common questions.

How Long Do Disability Hearings Last?

ALJs often schedule their hearings in one-hour increments, but hearings are more likely to last between 30-45 minutes. A complex case with multiple expert testimonies might run longer than an hour, while a case that needs little additional information might be over in 15 minutes.

What Should I Wear to My Disability Hearing?

Wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable (within reason). ALJs understand that people with disabilities can struggle with getting dressed, and don't expect you to sit through the hearing in uncomfortable clothes. You won't be out of place wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but avoid wearing anything that would be inappropriate in an office setting, like profanity.

Your attorney, if you have one, might wear a suit or a business casual outfit. Some judges choose to wear dark robes, but many will also wear business casual.

How Do I Know If My Disability Hearing Went Well?

Many claimants look for clues to the outcome in how the ALJ acted at the hearing, but this isn't a great predictor of whether you'll receive a favorable decision. Some judges are friendly and engaging, while others prize efficiency and are more direct. Neither personality makes a judge more or less likely to approve your case.

You won't always be able to tell what's going through the judge's mind, but you can be cautiously optimistic about a favorable decision if your hearing was very short (under 15 minutes). Short hearings usually indicate that you have a very strong medical record and no "bad facts" that the ALJ needs to ask you about.

Another good sign is if you have a medical expert present who testifies that you meet or equal a listed impairment (in other words, you're "medically disabled"). If an ME says you're disabled, the judge will frequently adopt that opinion and wrap the hearing up quickly. Or, if the ALJ asks the vocational expert only one hypothetical question and the VE's response indicates that no jobs exist in that hypothetical situation that someone with your limitations could perform, the judge will likely find that you're disabled.

You likely won't know the outcome of your hearing until several weeks after your hearing has ended (or more if the ALJ needs to obtain any medical evidence that wasn't submitted before the hearing).

What If I'm Late to My Hearing?

Depending on how late you arrive to the hearing, the ALJ might conduct your hearing in the remaining allotted time, or your hearing will be postponed and you'll be issued a notice to "show cause" (explain why you were late).

Most judges will typically give you some leeway if you're running late for a good reason, such as getting lost or having your car break down. But ALJs have a busy schedule and can't hold up the rest of their hearings while waiting for you to arrive. If you aren't sure if you'll get to your hearing on time, call the hearing office or your representative (if you have one).

You can reduce the risk of having your hearing cut short, or postponed entirely, by conducting a "dry run" to the office before the hearing. Calculate the traffic based on the time of day and distance from where you live, and make sure you know where any nearby parking lots or bus stops are. If you're getting a ride from somebody else, confirm that they'll pick you up at the correct time.

You should aim to be in the office 30 minutes before your scheduled hearing.

How Can I Prepare for a Disability Hearing?

On average, disability claimants can expect to wait about two years before their hearing is scheduled. You can use that time productively to make sure you're well prepared when your hearing date arrives with the following tips:

  • Read your denial letter carefully. Be sure you understand why your disability claim was denied. To help with that, request a copy of your Social Security case file.
  • Review your case file. Pay special attention to issues such as whether you meet the technical requirements for disability, whether your work history is accurate, and what restrictions are in your residual functional capacity. You should request your file as soon as you receive your Notice of Hearing in the mail.
  • Get your medical records together. At the earlier stages of the disability determination process, the SSA will do most of the legwork to obtain your doctors' notes. But once you've requested a hearing, you'll have to gather recent records yourself. Give yourself plenty of time to submit records requests from your medical providers. You want to have as much updated medical history as possible for the judge to review.
  • Be smart about which records you request. You can avoid duplicates (and save money) by finding the dates of the last records that the SSA has and requesting only new documents since then. Follow up regularly on the status of your requests so that you'll be ready to submit them to the SSA before your hearing.
  • Ask your doctor for a medical opinion. If you have a doctor whom you've seen regularly for visits, consider asking them to fill out a medical source statement before your hearing. The SSA values opinions from doctors who've treated you regularly for your conditions, because they can provide unique insight into your symptoms and limitations.

Learn how to act when you go before the judge at your hearing.

Updated September 21, 2023

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