Sunday, April 27, 2008

Being Prepared for a Social Security Disability Hearing

Individuals who file for social security disability or who apply for SSI disability (in actuality, for those who are not aware, the decision as to whether or not a claim will be for SSD or SSI will be determined at the time of application, based on a claimant's earnings record) typically have about a thirty percent chance of being awarded disability benefits. The actual statistic varies considerably according to which state you live in. However, a thirty percent approval rate is average.

Thirty percent may not sound so bad until you take a moment to consider the flip side to this: seventy percent of claimants will be denied. At that point (being turned down on a claim), an applicant will have to choose between giving up completely (sadly, many do), filing a new disability application (usually not the best option since you will probably be denied again for the same reasons), or...filing an appeal.

The first appeal is something called a request for reconsideration. Is it worthwhile to file this appeal? Yes it is. But not because cases are approved at the reconsideration level. The truth is, most are not. In fact, depending on which part of the country you live in, reconsideration appeals may face an 80-85 percent chance of being denied as well. However, reconsiderations are important because once a claim has been denied at that level, a claimant may request a hearing.

Hearings are distinctive in the social security disability and SSI process. Hearings are the only step in the system where you will actually get to meet the decision maker (in this case, a federal judge), present your case, and answer questions about your work history and medical condition. However, hearings are even more important because they take so long to get to. How long does it take to get to a hearing? Again, depending on where you live, it can take up to two years.

For this reason, it is essential and vital that a claimant is fully prepared for a social security disability hearing. And here's a short list of tips and, perhaps also, mistakes to avoid in being prepared for a disability hearing.

1. Make sure you're present for your hearing and on time. This may sound silly as a piece of advice to offer. After all, who would wait one to two years for a hearing and then either show up late or miss their hearing entirely---but it happens all the time. Here's some good advice to take: A) make sure you have transportation to your hearing; B) make sure you know when your hearing is (time and date); C) make sure you know where your hearing is to be held (it's not a bad idea to visit the hearing location beforehand if feasible); D) make sure you leave early enough to arrive on time, even considering the possibility of slow traffic or an accident blocking traffic.

2. Make sure the judge who is hearing your case has updated medical records. Many claimants who go to hearings unrepresented make the mistake of assuming that the administrative law judge will have everything he or she needs to make a decision. But the truth is that development on a case (including the gathering of records) pretty much stops at the reconsideration level. So, if you don't have a lawyer handling your disability case, make sure to get your most recent medical records and provide copies for the judge. Of course, if you have a disability lawyer, that individual will perform this function and will generally attempt to obtain supportive statements from your treating physicians.

3. Be familiar with the things that concern you, meaning your own medical history and work history. Of course, this is something you are probably familiar with anyway. However, its amazing how many details (dates, names, places, duties, etc) a person can fail to recall when placed in a situation that causes anxiety...such as a disability hearing. Do yourself a favor and review your own work history (where you worked, the dates, what you did) and medical history (the places you've been seen, the procedures you've had performed, and the conditions you've been diagnosed with) so you can be better prepared for your hearing. Also, give some consideration to your various conditions and how they have specifically limited your ability to work (i.e. do you have trouble standing for certain lengths of time, sitting for certain lengths of time, trouble reaching, bending, stooping, or lifting more than a certain amount of weight).

4. Be familiar with what has happened previously on your case. By this, I mean the prior decisions on your social security disability or SSI case. True, at the hearing the judge will give an unrepresented claimant the opportunity to review their case file, but let's be honest----how many claimants will even know how to interpret how a prior decision was rendered or whether there is a basis for calling it into question. Honestly, they won't. So, how I should have started number four was by saying "Get representation". Because you want to show up at a hearing fully prepared. And typically this will mean having a representative who is familiar with the social security disability process, who has the ability to analyze prior decisions (denials) for errors, can review your medical records, can obtain new evidence that supports your claim, and can develop a satisfactory argument as to why your claim for disability should be approved.

Now, these are just a few tips regarding being prepared for a hearing. In future posts, I will probably revisit this topic and list additional tips. However, the main point to keep in mind is this: hearings take a long time to get to and their outcome can determine your financial future. Therefore, for this reason, do everything you can to be fully prepared for a hearing.

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