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Most people who apply for Social Security disability benefits (either SSDI or SSI) will need to go through multiple rounds of appeal, including a hearing in front of a judge. The judge will assess the claim and make a final decision to approve or deny the application.
A disability hearing might seem scary, but it’s a normal and common part of the process to get disability. In fact, this is the stage of the process where you have the highest chance of winning benefits.
To help you get through your hearing with confidence, here’s the information you need on how the hearing works, who will be there, and tips for success from our in-house lawyers.
A Social Security disability hearing is the second stage of appeal after your SSI or SSDI application is denied. It’s an opportunity to explain your case in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ), who will examine your medical records and information from other experts to decide whether to approve you for disability benefits.
Here’s how a hearing fits into the application process:
The hearing is your chance to state your case, explain why you need benefits, and hopefully get approved.
Most people who apply for disability will end up having a hearing for their case. About 75% of initial applications are rejected, leading to a reconsideration. Around 90% of reconsiderations are rejected, too. That’s when the hearing takes place.
Both SSDI and SSI applicants go through hearings. The hearing is the same no matter which program you apply for.
You have a better chance of approval at a hearing than you do at any other stage of the disability process. Judges approve benefits in 54% of hearings, on average. That means hearings have a higher success rate than initial applications and reconsiderations. SSA data also shows that applicants with a disability lawyer are three times more likely to win benefits.
However, approval rates vary significantly according to which hearing office handles your case and according to the judge for your case. In 2022, some administrative law judges denied more than 90% of claims, while others approved more than 90% of claims.
Hearings historically happen in person at an SSA hearing office, but many hearings take place over the phone since the COVID-19 pandemic.
There will be multiple people present at the hearing, including:
During the hearing, the judge will ask you questions about your situation. For example, they may ask how your pain or other symptoms affect your daily functioning.
While the judge is the person who makes the final decision on whether you’ll receive benefits, they will request information from the vocational expert about jobs you may be able to do. The judge will ask the VE a series of hypothetical questions about what jobs someone in your situation may be able to do. This helps the judge understand whether your disability realistically keeps you from working. If you have a lawyer, they will jump in to ask the VE questions and refute any claims that VE’s that you can do more work than you claim. Testimony from the VE involves official jobs codes and will likely be hard for you to follow.
The judge may also ask a medical expert about your conditions to help understand your claim, though this isn’t common. In some cases, your lawyer may want to have a doctor or medical expert speak to help support claims about the severity of your condition.
If you have any other witnesses, which isn’t common, they can speak about your disability or how it affects you. Again, your lawyer can advise you on the most effective way to use witness testimony (if at all).
Learn more about what to expect and how to prepare for a disability hearing.
After your hearing, the judge will make a decision about your case. Keep in mind that no matter what any of the experts say during the hearing, the ALJ always has final say.
You should receive the news of your approval or denial between a few weeks or a few months after your hearing date. The judge may even give an answer on the spot, though it’s uncommon.
If your benefits are approved, congratulations! Your first check will arrive within six months, though often much sooner. That first check will also include months or years of back pay. If you worked with a lawyer, their fee will be automatically removed from your back pay and you don’t need to worry about any other payments. (Read more on how much a disability lawyer costs.)
If the judge denies your claim for disability benefits, there are a couple of things that could happen. It’s possible to appeal the decision one more time to the Social Security Appeals Council (AC). But winning at that stage is difficult and your lawyer may not recommend taking that step. At that point, your options are limited to applying for a different program (especially if your situation has changed since the time you first applied) or starting the application process again.
Related: Housing, food, and financial resources for people with disabilities
There’s no guaranteed way to win disability at a hearing. Unfortunately, more than 40% of hearings still end with a denial. Factors that you can’t control, such as the judge you get, can make a big difference in the outcome of your case. However, there are a few steps you can take to give yourself a better chance of success:
Read more about how to prepare for a disability judge’s questions.
Working with a good disability lawyer is one of the best ways to help you win benefits at a disability hearing. A lawyer can help you prepare for the hearing and then represent you in front of the judge. They’ll also have experience in cross-examining experts like the VE.
If you’re interested in working with a lawyer, Atticus can connect you with vetted disability lawyers who have experience handling SSDI and SSI hearings. Getting matched is free and you don’t have to work with the lawyer we choose if you don’t want to. You also never have to pay the lawyer until after they win your case. (If you don’t win, you don’t have to pay.)
Take our two-minute disability benefits quiz to give us more information about your situation, and we’ll reach out to help with next steps.
Most disability applicants will go through a hearing, but you only need one if your initial application and first appeal (reconsideration) were both denied). Read more on the full disability application process.
A hearing offers the best chance of winning disability benefits. In 2022, judges approved benefits in more than 50% of disability hearings.
It could take the judge weeks or months to give a final decision and it’s difficult to know in the moment whether your hearing went well. If you have a lawyer, they’ll help you understand how it went. Learn more with these five signs you’ll be approved for disability.
If you win benefits through your hearing, you will receive your first payment, which includes back pay, within six months of getting your approval. Most people get their first check well before six months have passed.
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