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I have an SSDI hearing coming up. What do I need to know?

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Q:

I have an SSDI hearing coming up. What do I need to know?

A:

Most disability applications are denied by the Social Security Administration (SSA), forcing thousands of disability applicants to appeal their denials and request a hearing before an administrative law judge.

Unfortunately, even though the hearing is generally the applicant's best chance to win benefits, many claimants are simply unprepared for the disability appeals process and do not understand what they need to do to win SSDI or SSI benefits. The good news is that by researching the process and hiring a disability lawyer, you can improve your chances of winning benefits at a disability hearing.

So what do you need to know about the SSDI hearing?

1. It can take months or years to have your hearing scheduled.

SSA officials claim that the enormous backlog of cases waiting to be heard by administrative law judges is beyond their control. Reports indicate that cases waiting to be heard surged from 589,449 in fiscal 2008 to 810,715 in fiscal 2014. But the backlog of cases is nothing new. In fact, as early as 1975, there was a backlog of 103,000 cases.

So what does this mean for you? You could wait up to two years to have your case heard by an administrative law judge—time that cannot be spent working or generating a substantial income.

The good news, however, is that you will have months to prepare your case, gather medical evidence, and ensure that you are ready to argue your case when you finally get the chance.

2. Vocational and medical experts may attend your hearing.

Although the administrative hearing is not like a criminal court hearing, with the prosecuting attorney and the defense lawyer battling it out in front of the jury, the government may call “experts” to testify about the case. These experts are referred to as medical and vocational experts, and may be asked to present information to the court, which can be used to discredit your claim of disability.

Specifically, the vocational expert (VE) has expertise concerning available jobs in the current labor market and what skills a worker needs to perform them. The VE, if present, will be asked to provide their expert opinion about whether or not a claimant has the ability to perform available jobs, given their mental and physical limitations. If the vocational expert testifies that you have the residual functional capacity to work, this can be devastating for your case, especially if the testimony is not effectively discredited by you or your lawyer.

A medical expert may also attend the administrative hearing to provide more specific information about your condition. They should have reviewed your medical records prior to the hearing and be ready to give their opinion about your condition, the limitations caused by your conditions, and whether your condition meets or equals a listing in the SSA Listing of Impairments.

3. Your goal is to prove that you cannot work.

To win disability benefits, a claimant must prove that they have a severe health condition that will last 12 continuous months and that does not allow them to perform substantial gainful activity. With this in mind, it is critical that you have medical information that substantiates your claim that you cannot work.

Although there are many conditions and their corresponding symptoms outlined in the SSA Listing of Impairments that are considered automatically disabling, if the SSA believed your condition met or equaled one of those listings, you would have been approved immediately for SSDI and you would not be at a hearing.

What does that mean for you? Prior to your hearing, you need to review your medical records (with the help of your lawyer) and decide if you have enough information about your physical and mental limitations to prove to the court that you cannot work.

If you need more information, consider contacting your treating doctors and find out if they are willing to complete a residual functional capacity form (RFC). These forms can be downloaded from the Internet and specifically identify your limitations to work.

4. The hearing gives you your best chance to win your SSDI case.

Up until the hearing, all correspondence with the SSA is done via phone, fax or email. The hearing, however, is performed in front of a judge. At the hearing, you will have the opportunity to give testimony and present evidence directly to someone with the authority to make the disability decision for your case. If you are prepared, the hearing will be your best chance to win benefits.

5. Most claimants hire a disability lawyer to help them.

Why do you have to hire a lawyer to help you win something you deserve? It’s a great question but, unfortunately, given the complexity and hassle of winning disability benefits, many applicants do find that getting a lawyer can increase their chances of winning benefits at every level in the disability process.

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