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How to Prepare for a Judge's "Trick Questions" at a Disability Hearing

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
July 8, 2022  ·  4 min read

Getting scheduled for a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) hearing is a big step closer to benefits — but the work doesn’t end there. 

Preparing for the disability hearing is crucial to your approval.

You'll want to consider what questions a judge may ask at a disability hearing and how you can prepare your responses to be truthful, precise, and convincing. 

A disability judge won’t ask “trick questions,” per se, but they will ask specific questions to assess your level of impairment, and your ability to work. The “right” answers will lend vital credibility to your claim. The wrong answers will severely damage your case.

A good lawyer will prepare you for the judge's questions — and having legal representation before a hearing is critical for your success (83% of people are represented at a hearing, and you’re 3x as likely to win benefits with a lawyer) Whether or not you’re already represented, this article will give you an overview of what to expect at your hearing: the questions judges often ask, tips on how to answer favorably, and common mistakes claimants make.

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My disability case is going to a hearing — what should I expect?

Your disability hearing is a private and confidential proceeding. Post-COVID, most hearings take place over the phone and last approximately one hour. 

The hearing notice will let you know who will be at your hearing. Typically, this includes the judge, you (the claimant), your legal representative if you have one, a vocational expert (hired by the government), and a hearing reporter. Occasionally, a medical expert is present, but this isn’t common practice.

During the hearing, the judge will review your past relevant work experience, consult with the vocational expert, and ask you questions to support or refute what the vocational expert says. 

After the hearing, the judge assesses your responses and decides on your case. This decision can take a few weeks to a few months. 

What are some common disability hearing questions?

While each disability case is unique, certain question types are consistent during most hearings. If you are working with a disability lawyer, they will practice asking you questions and helping with your responses.

If you don’t have a lawyer and want to consult with one for free, click here

SSDI hearing questions posed to the experts

Typically, the judge will first question the vocational expert (and medical expert, if present). Vocational experts are exactly what they sound like — they’re brought in to testify about the jobs the government acknowledges as available, and the skills required to perform those jobs. 

The judge will often ask questions to the vocational expert in a “hypothetical” format. Meaning they’ll ask, “Hypothetically, someone with XYZ condition with X number of years working as X, what type of work could they perform?”

The vocational expert will classify your work history over the last 15 years to determine what jobs you’ve held at a substantial level and stayed in long enough to learn how to perform the work in that role. They do this to determine the skill level you would be in similar positions today. 

The experts will only share their opinions. They will not say, “This person’s physical limitations aren’t severe enough to prevent them from working as a grocery clerk.” Still, they may say, “It is my opinion that, hypothetically, a person with these limitations could stand for four hours per day, allowing them to have a part-time job, like a grocery clerk.”

Here are some common SSDI hearing questions posed to the vocational or medical experts:

  1. "If I have a hypothetical individual, who's the same age as the claimant, the same education as the claimant, and the same past relevant work as the claimant, and I find that this person can do the following X, Y, Z jobs, could a person with those limitations perform any of the claimant’s past relevant work?"
  2. "Are there any other jobs that a person with those limitations could perform?" 
  3. "What are the severe impairments that you saw in the file? And can you offer an opinion about the claimant's functional capacity based on what you saw?"

It’s important that you let experts testify without interruption. But their answers here, if left unchallenged, are often damaging to your case.

This is where having an attorney makes all the difference. They’ll cross-examine the expert — poking holes in their assessment of your work history, training, or medical condition. 

If you have questions specific to your disability case, you can always reach out to an expert at Atticus. We offer free legal advice, and can match you with an experienced disability lawyer (if you want or need one). 

SSDI hearing questions the judge may ask you

Once the judge receives the expert testimonies, they will begin questioning you to determine if there are any jobs you can hold or if your situation precludes you from working. 

They’ll start by having you confirm your name, date of birth, address, and social security number. Then the judge will ask about your educational experience and work history over the past 15 years. 

The following is a list of disability hearing sample questions the judge may ask you:

  1. For each relevant job, the judge may ask, “Tell me about your work at XYZ company. What did you do?” They may also ask questions relevant to your condition and the role, like “Were you seated or standing most of the time?” (If your disability is mobility related) or “Did you interact with customers often?” (If your disability relates to your mental health).
  2. You can also expect open-ended questions such as, "Tell me why you can't work.”
  3. The judge may ask pain-related questions such as, "Tell me where you have pain. Can you describe the pain for me? What are the triggers for your pain? What makes your pain worse?”
  4. Because different jobs require different amounts of mobility, interaction, and training, a judge will ask follow up questions related to these things. They may ask, "How long can you stand at one time? How long can you walk at one time?"
  5. To get a better sense of your condition, the judge may try to determine your ability to perform the daily functions of your life. They may ask, “How do you get to and from the doctor’s office? Did you drive here today?”

Some people may consider these “trick questions,” because they open you up to contradictions.

If you say that you drove here, even though you stated you could not drive, this will raise a red flag for the judge. Or if you say you can’t stand for more than 15 minutes at a time, but you regularly go grocery shopping by yourself — that will seem inconsistent. 

Common mistakes people make when answering questions

We get it. Being in front of, or on the phone with, a judge can be intimidating. Everyone handles nerves differently, so it’s helpful to know your typical behaviors when you get nervous. 

The following are some common mistakes people make when answering the judge’s questions:

  1. They answer questions that aren’t asked. If a vocational expert says that hypothetically, someone with your limitations could work as a cashier, for example, you don’t want to proclaim or “answer” that you could not perform that job. Only answer direct questions from the judge. 
  2. They over-explain. If the judge needs more information, he or she will ask you. You should answer succinctly in a sentence or two. You may want to explain your answer, but stick to a “yes” or “no” response, especially with yes or no questions. 
  3. They answer as if they are having a great day. You may get to the hearing and feel like your pain is not as bad as it typically is on most days, so you answer the questions by how you feel at that moment. However, you should answer the questions with how you feel most days.
  4. They minimize their symptoms. We know it can be hard to admit on record how limiting your abilities are, but you’ll only receive benefits if you share how truly restrictive your life has become because of your injury or illness. 
  5. They aren’t specific enough. If a judge asks you how long you can walk, “Not very long” isn’t specific enough. You should be able to answer in a precise length of time. The judge will push back on responses that aren’t clear, so it’s best to over-prepare when analyzing your abilities.

Related: 7 Tips for Answering Questions at a Disability Hearing

Legal representation can increase your chances of winning disability

Having the right lawyer on your side is crucial for a disability hearing. They’ll coach you through the judge’s questions and ask you questions that will strengthen your case.

If you don’t have a lawyer yet, reach out to Atticus. We can match you with a vetted attorney in as fast as 48 hours.

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

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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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