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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  ·  7 min read

Getting scheduled for a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) hearing is a big step closer to winning disability 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 three times 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 Social Security disability hearing: the questions judges often ask, tips on how to answer favorably, and common mistakes claimants make.

Get strategic support for your disability hearing.

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 administrative law 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, take our 2-minute quiz.

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. For example, they’ll ask, “Hypothetically, what type of work could someone with [your condition] and [the number of years you worked] years working as [your profession] 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:

  • “If I have a hypothetical individual, who is the same age as the claimant, with the same education level as the claimant, and the same past relevant work as the claimant, and I find that this person can do [hypothetical jobs], could a person with those limitations perform any of the claimant’s past relevant work?”

  • “Are there any other jobs that a person with those limitations could perform?”

  • “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.  

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:

  • For each relevant job, the judge may ask, “Tell me about your work at [your previous 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).

  • You can also expect open-ended questions such as, “Tell me why you can’t work.”

  • 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?”

  • 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?” or “How long can you walk at one time?”

  • 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?” or, if you have an in-person hearing, “Did you drive here today?”

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

For example, 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 may seem inconsistent. 

Top 5 mistakes people make when answering disability hearing questions

Top 5 mistakes people make when answering disability hearing 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 overexplain. If the judge needs more information, they will ask you for it. 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 better to over-prepare when analyzing your abilities.

Related: 7 Tips for Answering Questions at a Disability Hearing

Social Security disability hearing FAQ

How do you explain daily activities at an SSDI hearing?

Disability judges want to know how your medical issues impact your ability to perform everyday activities, like going grocery shopping and traveling to medical appointments. If you typically receive help with your daily activities — for example, a family member brings your groceries to you — you should let your disability judge know.

What’s the best way to answer disability judges’ questions?

Respond to questions truthfully and briefly (in one or two sentences). If a disability judge asks questions about your daily life, describe a typical day in your life, not what you are capable of on your best days.

What should you not say at SSDI hearings?

Avoid absolutes like “always” and “never,” which can be a red flag to a judge. Instead, respond to questions with “usually” or “most days.” Don’t volunteer irrelevant information the judge hasn’t asked for.

How can you explain pain to a disability judge?

Pain can be subjective and difficult to put into words. If a disability judge inquires about your pain, your medical records can help. Think of examples of activities your medical condition prevents you from doing. For example, you might share that even with your medications, you can only sit or stand for a certain number of minutes.

What’s the best way to prepare for “trick questions” at a hearing?

The best way to prepare for your hearing is to work with a disability lawyer. Disability lawyers have experience in the hearing room and know which “trick questions” you might get. 

A disability lawyer can coach you so that you feel ready for whatever questions come up at your hearing. Learn more about what a disability lawyer does.

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.

Don't face the hearing alone. Team up with a skilled disablity attorney.

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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.

Related resources:

What to Expect at a Social Security Disability Hearing

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

What Do Social Security Disability Lawyers Do (That I Can’t)?

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

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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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