The Order in Which Things Happen at a Social Security Disability Hearing

Many judges begin Social Security disability hearings by reciting the "case history" of your disability claim and stating the issues to be decided. Judges often state what you have to prove in your case — but they seldom give a clear and simple explanation. They usually say that in order to be found disabled for purposes of Social Security disability benefits you must be "unable to perform substantial gainful activity which exists in significant numbers in the economy, considering your age, education and work experience." When they say this, it almost sounds like you’ve got to be bedridden to get disability benefits - but this isn’t true.

The judge may question you first. Then the judge will give your lawyer a chance to ask you some questions. Occasionally, if a claimant is well prepared to testify, the lawyer doesn’t have to ask any questions at all.

On the other hand, some judges expect lawyers to handle most of the questioning. If so, answer questions asked by your lawyer as if a stranger were the one asking them. Sometimes a claimant gives incomplete answers when his or her lawyer asks questions, because the lawyer already knows a lot about the case. But it is important to keep in mind that the judge, who will decide your case, doesn’t know the answers until you say them. Although the judge probably will read your file before the hearing, when you’re testifying, it is best to assume that the judge knows nothing about your case. Plan on explaining everything.

When you’re done testifying, your lawyer will be allowed to question any witnesses you’ve brought to the hearing. It is important to bring at least one witness to your hearing to testify in support of what you say, to give the judge details about your disabilities and how they affect you, or to offer a different perspective on your medical problems.

After your witness’s testimony, any doctor or vocational expert called by the judge will testify.

At the end of the hearing, some judges will ask you if you have anything more to say. It’s best if you don’t try to argue your case at this point — let your lawyer do that. Most judges will give a lawyer the opportunity to make a closing argument either at the end of the hearing or to be submitted in writing.

Most judges won’t tell you if you’ve won, although a few will. A few judges issue what is called a “bench decision” (a decision stated right at the hearing). Even if the judge issues a bench decision, the judge still must issue a short written decision, which will be mailed to you with a copy to your lawyer. The good thing about the written part of the bench decision is that it comes only a few days after the hearing. When the judge issues a regular decision, sometimes it takes quite a while for the decision to come out..