How to Prepare For Your Day in Court During a Social Security Claim
March 20, 2023 · 5 min read
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This can be disheartening, but it’s extremely common — and it’s not the end of the road. Usually, the next step in your journey is to appeal the decision—filing for reconsideration, and if denied, requesting a hearing.
This article outlines everything you need to prepare for your day in court, so you can approach the situation as confidently and stress-free as possible.
Why do I have to go to court?
When you apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates your eligibility based on specific criteria related to your disability and financial situation. Unfortunately, many initial applications are denied due to a variety of reasons, such as insufficient medical evidence, lack of work history, or earning too much income.
If your initial claim is denied, you have the right to appeal the decision through a series of administrative hearings, culminating in a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). During these hearings, you have the opportunity to present additional evidence to support your case and argue that you meet the eligibility requirements for SSI or SSDI benefits.
Appealing a denied claim can be a complex and time-consuming process, requiring legal knowledge and expertise. As a result, many people seek representation from a Social Security Disability attorney to help them navigate the appeals process and increase their chances of success.
What happens at a hearing?
Your hearing will be conducted by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who was not involved in the initial decision-making process of your claim. During the hearing, you and your legal representative (if you choose to have one) will have the opportunity to present your case to the ALJ. The ALJ will also have access to any additional evidence or documentation that has been submitted since the initial decision.
We’ll talk you through some things that may happen during your SSI/SSDI hearing.
You will be asked to testify about your medical condition, how your symptoms affect your ability to work, your work history, and other relevant information about your daily life.
Witnesses may be called to provide additional information or testimony about your condition. This almost always includes a vocational expert (VE). They’ll testify about your technical abilities and related work options—based on your application, your medical records, and the Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles.
You are also entitled to call your own witnesses, like a friend or family member, to support your claims—though this is less common.
The ALJ and your legal representative may question any witnesses who testify during the hearing. This often means your lawyer will cross-examine the vocational expert, if they claim there are jobs you’d be capable of doing with your limitations.
Review of medical records
The ALJ will review any medical records that have been submitted as evidence and may ask questions about them.
After the hearing, the ALJ will issue a written decision stating whether or not you are eligible for SSI or SSDI benefits. This written decision should include the judge's reasoning. This written decision should include the judge's reasoning, which can inform your next steps in case of a denial.
Your first step for hearing prep should be reviewing your original SSD/SSDI claim file. Do a top-to-bottom review and make notes about your application, your medical records, and any correspondence with the SSA. Making sure you’re consistent across your initial application and hearing testimony is important, as the judge will likely ask you questions that you’ve already answered in writing. This is a legal proceeding, so ensure you’re as honest and clear as possible.
Make a cheat sheet to reference
One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of your hearing is likely the fear of being put on the spot with tricky questions. This is why preparation is crucial — it will help safeguard your case and bring you peace of mind. Having a cheat sheet with notes and answers to potential questions can mitigate the risk of you misremembering facts about your own case or condition.
Your cheat sheet should be consistent with the information you’ve already presented when applying for benefits. Make sure dates, diagnoses, timeframes, and other facts match your initial application. Having some reference points from your medical records to quickly reference is also handy. We’ve put together our own thorough guide to successfully navigating questions you might be asked at your hearing, including questions to expect, how to respond, and common mistakes to avoid.
Submit recent medical information in advance
The time between your initial rejection and your hearing can vary greatly, which means your condition might change. Making sure your medical records are up-to-date and logged with the SSA will clear up any discrepancies between your application and your testimony. If there are any updates on your condition before your hearing date, be sure to notify the SSA as soon as possible so they have your most current medical records on file.
Get a written doctor’s statement
A doctor’s statement is a crucial piece of evidence in your disability hearing. Ask your physician to prepare a written statement about your medical condition and how it affects your ability to work. If you can reach out to your physician for this information as soon as you receive notice of your hearing from the SSA, that is ideal.
Keep it comfortable
You may think heading to court necessitates a brand-new outfit, but don’t feel like you need to spend money to make a good impression. This is an informal hearing, so a smart-casual (within reason) approach is perfectly acceptable. Wearing tidy, comfortable clothes with no holes or stains is a great start. If you dress appropriately and respectfully, it can also boost your confidence and reduce your stress levels.
What if I can’t attend the hearing?
If something has come up and you can’t make it to your hearing date, it’s crucial to provide as much notice as possible to the hearing office. Get in touch with the Social Security Administration to tell them why you can’t attend, and then follow this up with a notice in writing. The SSA website has even more detailed information about this process.
If you need to change the time or place of your hearing, there are two date cutoffs to be aware of. The first date is up to 30 days after you receive your notice of hearing. The second date is five days before the date of your hearing. The SSA assumes you received your notice of hearing five days after the date on the notice unless you can prove to them that you did not get it within the five-day period. If you miss the deadline for requesting a change, the Administrative Law Judge will decide if your reason is acceptable.
Setting yourself up for success
Your hearing is a chance to prove that you have a right to claim SSI or SSDI benefits, so it’s important to put your best case forward. At Atticus, we’ve compiled a comprehensive database of free legal advice to help you navigate the claims process from start to finish — no jargon, no fees, just handy resources to explain the often confusing world of law. We can also help you find appropriate legal counsel for your hearing, connecting you to a pool of local lawyers specializing in disability claims. These attorneys work on a no-win, no-fee basis, so you don’t have to worry about upfront costs. Head to our disability benefits quiz to get started for free.
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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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