What to Expect at a Social Security Disability Hearing
December 15, 2022 · 5 min read
If you have a disability hearing on the calendar, the days and weeks leading up to it can be stressful. Your initial application has been denied. You’re not sure what to expect. And if you mess up and say the wrong thing, will you miss your chance to get disability benefits?
It’s natural to be nervous about a disability hearing, and it’s true the procedure can be confusing if you haven’t been to a hearing before. But with the right information about what to expect — and the right legal help on your side — you can feel much better about your chances of success.
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Who is present at a disability hearing?
Before your hearing, you’ll receive a document called a Notice of Hearing. This is a legal document that contains basic information about your hearing. It will list exactly who will be there. You can usually expect the following people to be present:
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The judge will make the final decision on whether your claim is accepted or denied.
Vocational Expert (VE). A vocational expert is there to provide information about the skills and mental or physical demands needed to perform various jobs.
Hearing reporter. The court reporter simply records what is happening.
Medical expert. Sometimes, a medical expert might also be at your hearing. If so, they’ll answer the judge’s questions about your medical conditions.
Of course, you and your lawyer will also be at the hearing. In some cases, you may be able to bring an additional witness — like a neighbor, friend, family member, former colleague, or your own expert who can testify to your abilities or health conditions. Make sure to inform the judge ahead of time that you’d like to bring a witness. They may deny it. If you have a lawyer for your appeal, your lawyer can decide if a witness is necessary to help build your case.
What to expect during a disability hearing
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, most disability hearings happen over the phone. The entire hearing should last about an hour.
After the judge provides some information about the basics of your case, they’ll start asking you questions. The judge will also ask the vocational expert (VE) hypothetical questions. Your lawyer will offer supporting information and, if needed, refute (“cross-examine”) something the VE has said.
This is where having a disability lawyer is most crucial. Rarely, the VE will say that there are “no jobs” you could do, given their understanding of your condition. More often, the VE will provide a series of jobs that they believe you’d be able to still work—taken from Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).
This reference is outdated (it includes jobs like “silverware wrapper”). Your lawyer will be an expert in what the DOT contains, and will be ready to refute the vocational experts claims about your ability to work. It’s very hard for a layperson to cross-examine the VE on their own, and it’s hard to get a favorable outcome without cross-examining the VE.
Most disability hearings don’t involve a medical expert. But if your hearing does, they will also get a chance to speak. The medical expert will often go before the vocational expert; they’ll discuss what they believe to be the limitations imposed by your disability. Then the vocational expert will be asked to consider those limitations when discussing the DOT jobs you may be capable of working.
As hard as it may be — it’s important to not interrupt other witnesses, even if you disagree with their assessment of your condition. Your lawyer will be given a chance to cross-examine them on your behalf.
How to prepare for the disability hearing
It’s helpful to understand not only the order of events at a disability hearing, but also what questions you may be asked. You might answer questions like:
“What did you do during your job at ABC company?”
“Tell me why you can’t work.”
“Tell me where you have pain. Describe what it feels like. What triggers your pain or makes it worse?”
“How long can you stand, sit, or walk at one time?”
“How do you get to and from the doctor’s office? Are you able to go grocery shopping and prepare your own meals? Did you drive here today?”
Some of these questions may sound similar, so it’s important to stay consistent in your answers. You might also want to review your disability application, and ensure you’re staying true to the information you’ve already provided there—unless your medical condition has worsened in the meantime. You should also be specific with your responses, and don’t provide any extraneous information or jump in when someone else is speaking — only answer direct questions you’ve been asked.
Once your hearing is over, the administrative law judge will consider all of the information from your file and your hearing to make their decision. While it’s possible to get a decision before you leave the hearing, this isn’t likely. In most scenarios, you’ll learn the outcome by receiving a letter in the mail — anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after your hearing. If you have a lawyer, they’ll likely hear back first electronically, and let you know the outcome.
If you won your hearing, you’re good to go! You will start receiving disability benefits. You’ll also receive any back pay you’ve accrued while the legal process took its course.
If your case was denied, you can still ask for another appeal, called a federal court appeal. Your lawyer will either represent you here, or recommend another lawyer who specializes in this phase of the process. This hearing is different: This time, you’re not not arguing that you’re eligible for benefits; you’re arguing that your former hearing didn’t grant you due process—that the legal process wasn’t fair. These are harder to win.
Where to get help with your disability hearing
The best place to get help with your hearing is from a disability lawyer. A good disability lawyer has years of experience helping disabled people get benefits, and they’ll understand the hearing process like the back of their hand. A lawyer knows what questions to ask or how to refute the vocational or medical expert. Your attorney can help you prepare for the hearing, too.
At Atticus, we vet lawyers in your area and match you with the best legal representative for your case. We’ll also provide legal advice — all at no cost. Get started by taking a short quiz. It’ll help us match you to the best possible attorney for you.
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.
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 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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