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Anatomy of a Disability Hearing

A Social Security disability hearing in front of an administrative law judge can be one of the most intimidating experiences a claimant will ever face.

But what exactly happens at these hearings? Well, while every case is different, hearings can usually be divided into four (and sometimes five) parts.

Understanding these parts and what to expect from each of them can help you prepare for your hearing.

Part 1 Preliminary Matters: The judge will begin by stating some of the rules and procedures governing your Social Security hearing and make sure that there are no issues your attorney is aware of that Social Security has overlooked.

Your attorney will likely make a brief opening statement outlining why you should be disabled as well, but not all judges allow this.

Part 2 Vocational Testimony: A key part of Social Security disability cases is determining whether you can do any past jobs you have held in the last 15 years. A judge’s first questions will almost always cover these jobs. Specifically, the judge will want to know how long you were on your feet, what the heaviest weight you lifted was, and your general day-to-day duties.

Your attorney may have additional questions about your past work as well.

Part 3 Medical Testimony: This is usually the longest portion of a disability hearing. The judge will ask you about medical issues that keep you from working, treatment, and how your conditions affect your ability to perform daily activities.

Your attorney will ask you additional questions after the judge as well. Some judges reverse this though, and let attorneys lead with questions before asking their own. Some judges ask almost no questions of claimants during a hearing.

Part 4 (sometimes) Medical Expert Testimony: While it has become less common in recent years, judges have the option of having doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists testify at your hearing. The medical experts will be asked about your conditions and whether you meet or equal a “Listing,” which essentially means you are automatically disabled.

Even if the medical expert says you do not meet or equal a Listing, they will testify about your residual functional capacity (RFC), which are the restrictions you would have in performing any work activity. An especially restrictive RFC can still rule out most full-time work, especially if you are over the age of 50.

Part 4 (most of the time) Vocational Expert Testimony: Most of the time, medical experts do not testify and hearings conclude with vocational expert testimony. These jobs experts will classify your past work (if any) with the government’s official titles and exertional requirements.

The judge and your attorney will then ask the vocational expert hypothetical questions about RFCs and whether these would allow you to perform your past work or any other jobs available in the national economy. These questions, and the vocational expert’s testimony, make up the basis of the written decision that you will receive several weeks after your hearing.

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