A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge is perhaps the most crucial stage in your claim for disability benefits. It is the only time you will go face to face with the individual who is going to determine your eligibility for benefits. Just as important as what is said at the hearing is what is not said. Here, you have the opportunity to present your “story” to a captive audience.
By way of background, the hearing itself is somewhat informal, though basic rules of evidence do apply. It can last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour on average, depending on who else may be present at the hearing. In addition to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and the claimant, the Judge has a hearing assistant handling essential clerical duties as well as recording the proceeding for record-keeping. Other possible parties present include medical experts and vocational experts upon whom the ALJ may rely for clarification of the record. They are not necessarily present at every hearing, but their role is simply to offer testimony on matters beyond the ALJ’s expertise.
One party that not present is an attorney representing the Social Security Administration. This is a significant difference from what most might expect from a courtroom experience. There is no advocate from Social Security who is there to “cross examine” you or otherwise challenge allegations made by you. Of course, the ALJ may ask you to explain inconsistencies during the testimony phase of the hearing.
During that phase, you will be asked questions under oath by the ALJ about three primary topics: (1) background information such as age, education, and work experience; (2) your medical condition and reasons for claimed disability; and (3) how daily activities have been affected by your medical condition. Of course, if you are represented by counsel, the attorney also has the right to develop the record by asking questions as well as making arguments in support of the claim.
Unlike the vast majority of the application process, which is primarily performed by exchanging paperwork, the hearing is the one instance where both the claimant (you) and the Social Security Administration are literally placed in the same room face to face. As such, what occurs during that hearing perhaps has a greater impact on the outcome of a claim than any other stage of the process.