Do you have a Social Security Disability (SSD) hearing scheduled? Congratulations – you’re nearing the end of the appeals process! This means there’s a high likelihood your application will be approved; nationally, 62% of SSD applications are approved at the hearing level.
But it also means you’ve waited a long time for much-needed benefits. Although the current average wait time for an administrative hearing in Chicago is 14.9 months, it can sometimes take up to two years before a hearing is scheduled.
After waiting this long, you’ll want to do everything possible to increase the chance that your application is approved. These tips can help you win your SSD hearing and get the benefits you deserve.
Take it seriously
SSD hearings are decided by an administrative law judge (ALJ), not a jury. The hearing is less formal than traditional court proceedings, but you should treat it just as seriously.
Arrive at the hearing office on time, dress appropriately (you don’t need a suit, but skip the T-shirt and jeans), address the court as “Your Honor”, and be polite and respectful. Although the ALJ will base her opinion on the medical evidence, making a good impression never hurts.
Review your case file
The ALJ, the attorney representing the Social Security Administration, and your attorney, if you have one, will all ask questions about your disability; these questions will include information included in your benefits application, so make sure to refamiliarize yourself with it. The goal isn’t to be able to recite it verbatim, but it should be consistent with what you wrote on the application. If it’s not – for example if your condition has worsened since you first applied – be prepared to explain why.
Provide recent medical records
As you review your case file, make sure to update it with recent medical records. If you’ve visited the doctor since you first filed your application, had more tests performed, undergone one or more treatments or procedures, been prescribed one or more medications – even if these treatments failed – make sure to submit those records to the hearing office at least 5 days before the hearing.
If you haven’t visited the doctor recently, schedule an appointment immediately. The ALJ will want to see recent documentation of your medical condition, particularly if it’s been a long time since you first applied. And as a practical matter the ALJ will certainly ask why, if a medical condition makes you unable to work, you haven’t visited a doctor or undergone any type of treatment recently.
You should also ask your doctor to submit a detailed letter outlining how your medical condition interferes with your ability to perform work-related tasks and activities of daily living. This letter should be as specific as possible. For example, “Patient reports she must lay in a quiet, darkened room for 2-3 hours per day, four days a week, due to migraines” will give the court a better picture of your condition and how it interferes with your ability to work than “Patient suffers migraines that require her to spend time in a dark, quiet room.”
Don’t provide more information than necessary
It goes without saying that when the ALJ (or the attorneys) asks a question, you must answer honestly. But when it comes to testifying, the adage “less is more” applies.
Often a person’s nerves get the better of them and they begin rambling when answering questions. Not only does this waste the court’s time, but it can also lead to sharing information that can actually hurt your case. So, when answering questions, offer only the information that is asked for – no more, no less. If the ALJ or attorneys want more information, they’ll ask for it.
Don’t exaggerate or minimize symptoms
In addition to not providing more information than necessary, don’t exaggerate or minimize your symptoms either.
Exaggerating symptoms can cause you to lose credibility with the judge, or even have him believe you are lying. The judge expects to hear that you are in pain and that the pain restricts your ability to do the things you normally did – if you weren’t, you wouldn’t have applied for SSD benefits. But it’s also simply not possible to have a pain level of 10, 24/7, or to be unable to find even some bit of relief.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, avoid the impulse to minimize your pain and the effect it has on your daily life; now is not the time to be stoic. The judge will not think you’re lazy or whining because you’ve been unable to work due to the pain.
Remember: you’re here because you NEED benefits to replace your lost income. Making it sound like your condition isn’t that bad can hurt your chances of getting them. Just tell the judge honestly what you can and cannot do, how it differs from what you used to do (for example, you used to walk 5 miles a day, 4 days a week, but now the most you can do is ¼-mile once a week), and how often you’re in pain.
Hire an SSD attorney
An experienced SSD attorney can help prepare you for the hearing and ensure that your medical file has all the information necessary to best prove your case. And, your attorney only gets paid if your application is approved, so you don’t have to worry about additional bills during a time when money is an understandable concern.