Preparing For The SSA Hearing: Learn Why The Wrong Answer Can Sink Your Case

5 August 2016
 Categories: Law, Blog

The best way to prepare for your SSA Hearing with the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is to talk to your attorney about the questions you can expect the judge to ask and what you should say in response. It's also important to understand what you shouldn't say in response to the ALJ's questions. A remark that seems innocent enough to you could have devastating consequences to your case because of what it implies to the judge. Consider these examples so that you can understand why the wrong statement can cost you your claim.

"Why can't you work?"

If you reply, "No one will hire me because of my problems," you aren't telling the judge that you really can't work. Instead, your statement implies that you're simply having problems finding an employer who will take a chance on you. Social Security benefits aren't designed to address that problem—they're only designed to help people who, even if they had the chance, couldn't work.

Instead, explain to the judge what limitations you have that you have to consider when trying to find a job. Let the limitations you describe paint the judge a clear picture of why you can't work.

Why did you file for benefits?"

Statements like, "My unemployment insurance ran out," or "I had to because of the terms of my long-term disability contract," are enough to kill your case. They both imply that you aren't really disabled and that you were faced with a difficult financial situation and decided to take a chance that you'd be approved for Social Security disability instead. 

Instead, explain that you realized that you weren't able to find any jobs that you could do because of your disabling problems. If the judge questions why you waited until your unemployment or long-term disability was nearing an end, explain that you had held out hope that you would either get better or find a job you could do.

"Why did you stop working?"

What the judge really wants to know is why your condition suddenly became too much for you to handle, especially if you'd been doing it for a long time. Don't answer with something like "The company shut down." While that may be true, there's more to the story. Why didn't you just go find work somewhere else? What limits you from picking up a job in another company somewhere? Explain to the judge that you were already struggling to keep up at work and that your boss had allowed you generous sick leave or accomodations—but that you would have likely had to file for disability anyhow, even if the company hadn't closed.

"How long can you stand, how much can you lift, and how far can you walk?"

You can expect the ALJ to ask you any or all of these questions. The absolute wrong answer is, "I don't know. Not long, not much, or not far." While you may be trying to avoid having your claim denied based on the idea that you can lift 5 or 10 pounds once in a while, what you're really doing is giving the judge a fairly blank slate and permission to fill in the answers for you. Everyone has their own interpretation of "not long" or "not much." Plus, you're admitting to the judge that you don't really know exactly how disabled you are—which is not the impression you want to give.

Instead, explain exactly how far you can walk and what the consequences are by saying something like, "I can walk about 1/2 mile if I go slowly, but then I have to rest for an hour or two." You can answer the question on lifting like, "I can lift a jug of milk into my cart at the grocery store, but I couldn't carry it around the store." You can answer the question on standing by saying something like, "I can stand for 10 or 15 minutes, but then the pain in my back and legs gets overwhelming and I have to lie down." These examples can be changed to suit your particular situation, but they're the sort of answer that the judge wants—specific and clear.

Testifying in front of the ALJ can be scary, but you'll do fine as long as you keep in mind what you need to convey to the judge and why it is important not to give answers that could indicate that you're not really disabled. For more advice, talk to an attorney who handles SSA disability claims.