By the time you get a hearing before one of Social Security’s administrative law judges (ALJs), your case is many months old. By this time you should have a lawyer that you’re working with and that you’ve met in person or talked to over the phone more than once. Even though you’ve prepared for the hearing, you still want to know, “What’s the judge going to ask?”
The judge’s five-step process.
The hearing judge’s questions will be based on their five-step analysis of your claim. They’ll need to know:
- Are you working? If you’re working, how much?
- Do you have any severe impairments? Or, how serious are your health issues?
- Based on how serious your health issues are - do you automatically qualify under Social Security’s complex rules? If you don’t qualify automatically, what are your limitations?
- In light of your health issues and limitations, can you still do your old job?
- If you can’t do your old job, is there some other job you could do in light of your limitations?
An ALJ wants to know a lot about your work history. That begins with whether you are working now. If you can work a little bit, but earn no more than that year’s “substantial gainful activity” limit, you can still qualify for disability… if because of your medical impairments, you can’t work more. For 2021 that income limit is generally $1310 per month.
Whether you’re working now or not, the ALJ will want to know what your job duties were. Think about whether you had to lift heavy things and how often. Think about how long you had to sit or stand at time, how far you had to walk, and other physical requirements. The ALJ probably wants details for several jobs, not necessarily the last one.
Often how or why you left your job is relevant to your disability application. Many people have to quit or leave work because of declining health. If instead, you filed a claim for unemployment when you left your job, be sure to let your lawyer know so they can prepare you for questions about that. Many states require that you certify you are able to work in order to receive unemployment - which could conflict with your disability claim.
The ALJ will want to know what you did to try and get medical help for your ailments. If you were unable to physically get to a doctor’s office because of distance, poverty, or something else be sure to let them know at the hearing.
The ALJ will want to know if you followed your doctor’s instructions. If you were slow to get recommended treatment, or have a history of not taking all your prescriptions, be prepared to say why.
Daily activity question.
What do you do in a typical day? “Nothing” is not a good answer. Even if you struggle throughout the day you probably do something. Be ready to explain what a regular day looks like. If you have good days and bad days, be sure to differentiate between the two. If you cook, how much and how often? If you do chores, how much and how often? How do your medical ailments limit what you do on a daily basis?
How to get help.
Although some people choose to apply for disability without an attorney, by the time you get to the hearing stage, you need to have a lawyer’s help. At that point, Social Security has denied your benefits application a couple of times and the hearing the best (but not the last) chance to win your case.
- If you’re in Alabama, contact Disability Alabama to represent you in your hearing. You’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to gain. We only get paid a fee if we win;
- Use Disability Alabama’s disability calculator for an estimate of your benefit. While you do not need any special information to complete the calculation you may want to take a moment to think about your average yearly income and current household income before using the disability calculator; and
- If you’re outside of Alabama contact the national organization for Social Security representatives to find a lawyer in your area.