Although Social Security Disability (SSD) hearings are less formal than traditional courtroom trials, they nevertheless cause many people to feel anxious or stressed. These feelings are understandable. The average wait time for an administrative hearing in Chicago is 14.9 months, so you’ve no doubt waited a long time for a hearing date. Not to mention, a lot is riding on the administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision.
Yet while the feelings are normal, they are mostly unnecessary – 62% of SSD applications are approved following an administrative hearing. So, chances are more than good that your application will be approved and you will finally get the benefit you deserve.
There are, however, things you can say at an SSD hearing that can put you among the 38% of people whose applications are denied. This doesn’t mean you should lie when questioned by the ALJ or the attorneys; rather, pay close attention to the question, don’t offer more information than what is asked of you, and be careful how you phrase your answers to avoid making it seem like your disability is minimal.
With that being said, here is what not to say at your SSD hearing (and how to soften the blow if you can’t avoid it):
“I can’t find a job.”
Anything that implies you would work if you could, such as “Nobody will hire me” or “I’d have to move if I wanted to work,” are huge no-nos.
SSD benefits are awarded because your disability makes you unable to work, not because you can’t find a job (that’s what unemployment benefits are for). The ALJ will consider statements like these as evidence that you are, in fact, physically capable of working and will likely deny your application.
Instead, if asked why you aren’t working, explain how your inability to perform tasks makes you unable to perform the work you used to do.
“I can’t find any relief for my pain.”
Many people exaggerate the extent of their disability and its impact on their daily lives in an attempt to increase the chances that their application is approved. This actually has the opposite effect and makes it more likely that your application will be denied.
Exaggerated claims of pain will only ruin your credibility with the judge. The ALJ understands that your disability causes pain and discomfort and makes it difficult to participate in many activities you did pre-disability. What she will find unbelievable are claims that your pain level is at a 10 all day, every day, and that you can’t do anything because of it.
“I’m not being treated for my disability.”
One of the most important things you can do, both for your health and well-being and to increase the chance that your benefits application is approved, is to regularly visit your doctor and follow his treatment plan. Not seeing the doctor regularly will damage your credibility and lead the ALJ to believe that your condition is not as severe as you claim – if it were, wouldn’t you want to do whatever you could to feel better?
That’s not to say that you have to continue treatments that don’t work. And even if you aren’t currently undergoing treatment, you probably were in the past – so make sure to explain to the judge what treatments and medications you’ve tried, and the reasons why you stopped.
“I have a criminal and/or drug history.”
Whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime or have a history of drug or alcohol misuse shouldn’t, in theory, matter – having a less than spotless history doesn’t mean you can’t become disabled in the future.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes damage your credibility with the ALJ. So, unless you are asked directly whether you have ever been convicted of a crime or have ever had issues with substance misuse, don’t offer the information.
If you are asked, answer honestly, explain what happened and, in the case of substance misuse, explain what steps you took, or are currently taking, to end your addiction.
“My partner is receiving unemployment benefits.”
This is another fact that, in theory, shouldn’t affect your SSD application. Your partner’s employment situation has nothing to do with your disability and its impact on your ability to work.
But like a criminal or drug history, it could potentially lower your credibility with the ALJ or even give her the false impression that you are trying to “work the system.” If you are asked this question, answer truthfully, and provide a brief explanation. But don’t offer this information if not asked directly.
“I can cook/do the laundry/go for walks.”
If you have a disability you can probably participate in at least some of the activities you used to enjoy, at least some of the time. But if the ALJ or attorney asks, “Do you go for walks?” and your answer is simply, “Yes,” you run the risk of giving the impression that you can do these and other activities all of the time. And if the ALJ believes you can do them all of the time, or without difficulty, she will deny your application.
Instead, when answering questions about whether you can participate in activities of daily living (like cooking, cleaning, or bathing) or relevant, job-related tasks, be specific about what you can do and how often you can do it.
For example, if you are asked, “Can you cook for yourself or your family?”, say, “On a good day, I can make a sandwich or microwave meals for my family. On a bad day, my family has to cook and bring me meals in bed or my recliner because it’s too difficult for me to get up. On average I cook 3-5 meals a week for them.”
This answer paints a more accurate picture for the ALJ about how your disability limits your daily activities than if you had just answered “Yes.”
An experienced SSD attorney can help prepare you for the administrative hearing and lessen the impact of any potentially problematic answers. By reviewing your medical file and practicing your answers to questions the ALJ and attorneys are likely to ask, you’ll go into the hearing feeling more confident and will be less likely to inadvertently say something that could decrease the chance of your application being approved.