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Social Security Disability Hearings: What You Need to Know

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
March 29, 2023  ·  6 min read
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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.

What is a Social Security disability hearing?

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:

  • Initial application: You apply for either SSDI or SSI benefits.

  • First denial: Most people (about 75%) get rejected after their initial application.

  • First appeal: You appeal the decision, asking the SSA for a reconsideration.

  • Second denial: Most people get rejected here, too (about 90%).

  • Second appeal: You appeal again, requesting a disability hearing in front of a judge.

The hearing is your chance to state your case, explain why you need benefits, and hopefully get approved.

Who needs to do a disability hearing?

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.

What are the odds of winning a disability hearing?

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.

What happens at a disability hearing?

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:

  • An administrative law judge (ALJ)

  • You and your lawyer if you have one

  • A vocational expert (VE) in many cases

  • A hearing reporter

  • A medical expert in some cases

  • Any additional witnesses (uncommon)

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.

What happens after the 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.

You got approved. What’s next?

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.)

You got denied. What’s next?

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

How to win a Social Security disability hearing

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:

  • Understand what’s going to happen. Read up on what happens at a disability hearing and who will be in the room (or on the call). You’ll feel more confident if you’re prepared.

  • Bring your recent medical records. Make sure you have your most recent medical information on hand to help support your claim. If you have a lawyer, they’ll know the best way to present it to the judge.

  • Work with a disability lawyer. While having a lawyer isn’t mandatory, it’s extremely helpful in the process of winning disability, especially at the hearing stage. People are three times more likely to win benefits at their disability hearing if they have a lawyer.

Read more about how to prepare for a disability judge’s questions.

How to get help with your hearing

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.

Triple your chances of getting approved. Get matched with a top disability lawyer today.

Frequently asked questions about disability hearings

What is an SSI or SSDI hearing?

A hearing is one of the key stages of appeal for Social Security disability. You present your case to a judge who can approve your benefits on the spot. It’s important to do as well as you can in the hearing because this is the last stage of appeal for almost all applicants. You can appeal a hearing denial, but it’s difficult and your chances of winning are low.

Do I need a lawyer for a disability hearing?

You don’t technically need a lawyer, but a good lawyer greatly increases your chances of winning benefits at the hearing. They’ll know the best way to present your case, how to answer a judge’s questions, and what questions to ask the vocational expert.

What are the chances of winning a disability hearing?

Based on a 2023 analysis by Atticus, people win benefits at their hearing 54% of the time. That’s a much higher approval rate than initial application and reconsiderations. Having a lawyer also triples your chances of winning a hearing.

Can I have my disability hearing over the phone?

Since the pandemic, many disability hearings happen virtually over the phone instead of in-person. That also means you can have a lawyer from another state (and it’s common to do so) because they don’t have to travel to your local courthouse.

Are there any signs that I won or lost my disability hearing?

Honestly, it’s best to ask your lawyer because they’ll know how the hearing went and potentially how the judge viewed your claim. Otherwise, it’s tough to say that any one thing — like a judge asking many or not very many questions — is a sure sign that you won or lost.

How long after my hearing will I get a decision?

You should expect to wait one to three months after an SSI or SSDI hearing for a decision. Some decisions will go faster, though. Your lawyer will have a clearer answer based on how your case and how the hearing went.

How long after my hearing will I get my back pay?

Once you get a hearing decision, you should get your first disability payment soon or even immediately. That first check will include all your back pay. If you have a lawyer, their fee will also come out of the check automatically so you don’t have to worry about paying them yourself.

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Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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