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How to answer questions at a Social Security Disability hearing

It takes months, sometimes years, to get a hearing in front of a Social Security Administrative Law judge (ALJ). You need to be prepared for the encounter when you get there.

It's very common for the ALJ to ask claimants questions directly. It's normal to be nervous, so it helps if you anticipate some of the judge's questions in advance and practice your answers. Obviously, you want to be absolutely truthful -- but the way that you phrase your words can sometimes help or hurt your case.

For example, one question the ALJ is almost certain to ask is, "Why can't you work?"

What he or she actually means is, "What is it about your condition that prevents you from holding a job?"

You don't want to simply give the ALJ your diagnosis -- that's already in the file on the judge's desk. Nor do you want to say something like, "No one will hire me," even if that's absolutely true. People make that mistake all the time, not realizing that they aren't telling the judge anything that helps their case. In fact, that kind of answer can hurt your case because it sounds like you could work if someone would offer you a job. Disability benefits aren't supposed to be an alternative to unemployment benefits!

Instead, what most people mean (and should say) is something like, "There are a lot of reasons I can't work," followed by an explanation of exactly how your condition prevents you from holding a job. Use plain language and talk to the ALJ as if you were explaining your disability to someone that's never experienced a back injury, diabetes, chronic pain, depression or whatever combination of problems prevents you from working. Describe your actual symptoms.

Ultimately, you want to try to keep your answers as clear and concise as possible -- but make sure that you're giving the ALJ enough information to see your predicament and approve your claim for disability.

Source: FindLaw, "Preparing for Your Social Security Disability Hearing," accessed April 20, 2018

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