Many Social Security Disability applicants are surprised to discover that the majority of disability claims are denied during the initial stage of the application process. In fact, nearly 70 percent of applicants are not awarded benefits during the initial claim stage, resulting in the need for a disability appeal. To make matters worse, fewer than 20 percent of Social Security Disability applicants are awarded benefits during the first stage of the appeal process, referred to as a Request for Reconsideration. This means that most disability applicants find themselves in front of an administrative law judge at a disability hearing – a process that can be stressful and confusing if you do not obtain legal representation. If you are wondering exactly what a disability hearing is and what you should expect when attending one, the following information will help.
What is a Disability Hearing?
A disability hearing is when a disability applicant appears before an administrative law judge to plead his or her disability case. This only happens once the applicant has been denied benefits during the initial stage of the disability claim process and after submitting a Request for Reconsideration (which is the first stage of a disability appeal).
The good news is that when you attend a disability hearing, your chances of being awarded benefits are greater than at any other point during the Social Security Disability claim process. In fact, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of applicants are awarded benefits as a result of such a hearing. You must, however, understand what will occur during this hearing and how to tip the scales in your favor for the best chance of a favorable hearing outcome.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
Technically you do not need a lawyer in order to attend your hearing, but having legal representation does increase your chance of a favorable hearing outcome. Fortunately, disability attorneys and advocates work on a contingency basis, collecting 25 percent of the back pay that you will be awarded should you win your disability case. This makes legal representation affordable to almost all disability applicants.
What Will Happen at Your Disability Hearing?
In most cases, hearings are held in a very informal atmosphere. You will usually be in a small room sitting at a conference table with your disability attorney or advocate and the administrative law judge. In some cases, witnesses (such as vocational and medical experts) will be there as well.
It is during this time that you will have the chance to explain your case to an administrative law judge. This judge does not have to take into account any of the decisions that were made by the adjudicator who processed your Social Security Disability claim. The judge will look at your case from a fresh perspective and will be meeting with you in person, so you are not just a file number.
It is the administrative law judge's job to make a fair ruling when it comes to deciding your disability case. He or she may ask you questions, which your attorney may already have prepped you for. It is important that you are always honest when answering these questions. Do not let pride get in the way of explaining to the judge exactly how your disability affects you. On the other hand, do not try to over-exaggerate the symptoms of your disability. These judges hear thousands of cases and they will know whether or not you are trying to “play up” your condition and the limitations it presents.
How to Present Yourself
When attending your hearing, make sure you dress appropriately. You are not trying to make yourself look like a charity case. Dressing in dirty, ragged clothing will not win points. In fact, it may cause the judge to believe that you do not respect his or her authority or that of the court. While you do not have to appear in a $1,000 suit, you should wear clean and presentable clothing that is worthy of the courtroom.
While most hearings do not take very long, if yours happens to run longer and you are unable to sit for long periods of time due to your disability, do not be afraid to ask if you can get up to stretch or move around. The judge will understand and is likely to expect such a request.
If, at any point, you feel that you are not being allowed to state your case completely, do not be afraid to speak up. When you do speak up, however, do so with respect. Saying something like, “I'm sorry, your honor, but I feel the need to explain further and I haven't been able to do so” will go a long way in ensuring that the judge hears your entire plea.
What Happens After the Hearing?
Many people assume that they will receive a notice regarding the judge's decision immediately after the hearing has concluded. This is not the case. You will receive a written notice within 60 to 90 days following the date of your hearing.
Fortunately, as mentioned above, nearly two-thirds of cases are decided in favor of the disability applicant as a result of these hearings. If yours is not among them, you still have a chance to appeal your case further. You should discuss your appeal options with your attorney if the judge hearing your case did not rule in your favor.