Pitfalls to Avoid at Your Social Security Disability Hearing

Don't get tripped up by these common pitfalls at your disability hearing.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

A Social Security disability hearing can be an intimidating experience, especially if you aren't familiar with the process and don't have an attorney. You might be expecting "trick" questions designed to trap you into admitting that you can work.

The reality is that disability hearings are non-adversarial proceedings—meaning there is no jury or lawyer for Social Security present—but the tone of your hearing will be determined by the administrative law judge (ALJ) assigned to your case. Depending on the ALJ, your hearing can be fairly relaxed and casual, or more rigid and confrontational.

Because you don't know whether you'll have an easygoing ALJ or a tougher one, you shouldn't rely on the judge's temperament to guide how you answer questions at the hearing. You can increase your chances of having a successful hearing if you avoid the following common mistakes.

Don't Exaggerate or Minimize Your Symptoms

The hearing is usually the first and only opportunity claimants (applicants) have to speak directly to the person who decides whether they're disabled. With so much at stake, some claimants—possibly nervous that the judge won't understand their struggles—overstate their symptoms.

But exaggerating your symptoms is the quickest way to sink an otherwise valid disability claim. You don't want to cause the ALJ to doubt what you're saying. Here's an example of the kind of exchange that will raise red flags with an ALJ:

The ALJ is likely going to think that the claimant isn't being completely honest. "10 out of 10" pain usually requires a trip to the hospital, and back pain can often be improved temporarily with medication, reclining, or applying heat or ice. Judges are skeptical when a claimant states that they experience the maximum amount of pain possible every minute of the day.

You don't want to minimize your symptoms, either. Unlike a job interview where you have to put your best face forward, the hearing is your place to talk about the day-to-day limitations that prevent you from working.

Claimants sometimes worry that the ALJ will think that they're whining or complaining, but this isn't true. The judge needs to get an accurate picture of how your physical or mental limitations prevent you from working. If you downplay your symptoms, the ALJ can assume that you aren't having any problems and are capable of working.

Don't Make Statements That Can Hurt Your Case

Some claimants, understandably eager to talk to an ALJ after years of waiting, respond to simple questions with unprompted details that might harm their case. While you must answer any questions the ALJ asks honestly, you don't need to offer information if you're not asked about it.

Areas or statements to avoid unless you're specifically questioned about them include the following:

  • You have problems with drugs or alcohol.
  • You have a criminal history.
  • You have family members who are receiving disability or unemployment benefits.
  • You haven't followed your doctor's orders or treatment plans.
  • You live in a town where no employers are hiring.
  • You can't get to work because you don't have a car.

Oversharing when asked about these topics won't necessarily ruin your chances, but they can be counterproductive, especially if they reinforce negative biases about the disability program.

Don't Give the ALJ Vague Answers

The ALJ at your hearing will almost certainly ask you questions about the physical or mental symptoms of your medical condition. Specifically, the ALJ will want to know how intense your symptoms are, how long they last, and how frequently they occur. Giving vague answers like "a lot" or "too long" to these questions is a pet peeve of many judges.

Use descriptive words and numbers to create a full picture in the judge's mind about your symptoms and how they affect you. For example, describing your pain as "burning," "shooting," or "throbbing" will stick with the ALJ better than simply stating that something hurts. Try to quantify your symptoms as much as you can, like "I get a migraine headache about three to four days a week, and they usually last from four to as much as eight hours."

Be sure to use examples from your daily life that let the judge know what activities you find difficult. Did you miss the most recent Thanksgiving with your family because of depression or anxiety? Have you dropped dishes and broken them due to arthritis in your hands? Are you unable to pick up your young child because of back pain?

You're more likely to convince the ALJ that you're too limited to work if you keep your answers tailored and specific.

Don't Argue With or Disrespect the Judge

Disability hearings are fairly informal with relaxed procedural standards. But basic rules of courtroom etiquette still apply. While the ALJ won't make their decision based on how nice they think you are, showing the judge (and the process) respect will help the hearing go smoothly.

Getting frustrated during a disability hearing is a normal reaction, especially if you don't think the hearing is going your way. But don't take any frustrations out on the ALJ. Avoid swearing or off-color comments. Try not to go on the defensive and challenge the judge about parts of your record that aren't the strongest, such as an unhelpful doctor's note.

Don't Go It Alone

The biggest mistake disability claimants make is to try to navigate the system alone. An experienced disability attorney can prepare you for your hearing and greatly increase your chances of being approved.

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