Once your Social Security disability hearing is over, you’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief. After all, you scrambled to find every piece of paperwork that Social Security asked for when you applied for disability benefits, and you prepared diligently for the questions that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) would ask you at the hearing. Since most disability claimants are approved at the hearing stage, you took the process seriously. So, is there any way to tell if your hearing went well?
The simple answer is: not really. In an ideal world, the ALJ would just tell you at the end of your hearing if you were going to be approved for disability benefits. And, occasionally, that does happen; a judge may tell you that your claim has been successful, and you can expect to receive a written decision after the hearing. That is called a bench decision. But most people leave their hearings not knowing whether they will receive benefits, and it could take between two and three months to receive the decision in the mail.
There are some clues that you are likely to win your claim. The judge can issue a bench decision, as described above. Additionally, a medical expert could say your condition meets a Social Security listing, which automatically means that you qualify for benefits. Or, a judge could ask a vocational expert a hypothetical question. If the vocational expert answers that you could not return to work and that there are no other jobs you could do, it is a pretty good sign that the ALJ will consider you disabled by federal standards and award you benefits.
Do not read into the ALJ’s demeanor much as an indicator of the outcome of your claim, since it is often a poor indicator of success.
What can you do in the time between your hearing and when you receive the decision? Not much other than continue treatment and wait for the mail to arrive. After the hearing, your file remains at the hearing office until the ALJ makes his or her decision. Once the judge makes a decision, your case is sent to the decision letter writing department of Social Security where a writer drafts your letter, sends it back to the judge for his or her signature, and then mails it to you.
Does the amount of time it takes to go through the process indicate success or failure? No, time is not a factor here. It may take a while for your medical records to make their way to Social Security. The disability examiner initially assigned to your case might be swamped. You may have a complicated condition that requires the ALJ to spend more time reviewing your case. And the letter writing phase can be prolonged if that office has a large volume of decisions that are backed up and waiting for letters. None of these factors has any bearing on whether you meet the definition of disabled.
When you do finally receive your Notice of Decision from the ALJ, read it closely. It will say whether you have been approved for benefits or denied, along with the rationale for how that determination was made. If you are successful, you’ll either receive a fully favorable or a partially favorable decision.
If your decision is fully favorable, it means that the ALJ agrees you are disabled and agrees with your alleged onset date. If your decision is partially favorable, it means that the ALJ agrees you are disabled but does not agree with your alleged onset date. He or she will assign you a different onset date (“established onset date”) and modify your back benefits accordingly. The change in onset date does not affect your regular monthly benefit payments going forward.
Partially favorable decisions are also granted in cases where there are closed cases of disability. That means that you were disabled and unable to work for at least twelve consecutive months, but you are no longer disabled. You will receive benefits only for the months during which the ALJ agrees you were disabled.
In the event that you receive an unfavorable decision, it means that the ALJ determined you did not meet the federal definition of disability and are not entitled to benefits. You have sixty days to appeal the decision to the Appeals Council. The appeal must be in writing and outline a case for why the ALJ’s decision was not based on substantial evidence. If you have not been represented by an attorney prior to this stage, you should definitely consider hiring one now.