Even though hearings are now being held on the telephone, your testimony is still taken under “oath” which means you must tell the truth. When the judge (also Administrative Law Judge or “ALJ”) asks a question, do not try to figure out why the judge is asking that particular question or whether your answer will help or hurt your case. Simply provide truthful answers and be honest about your limitations.
So how should you answer the ALJ’s questions at a disability hearing, and how many questions can you expect to be asked? Sometimes the ALJ will ask few questions; at other times the ALJ will ask you several questions. Regardless, here are some important tips you can follow that will make your hearing go more smoothly and increase the chance that you will be successful with your claim.
Answer the Question
One of the most common mistakes a disability claimant can make during a hearing is failing to answer the question asked by the ALJ. To avoid this, pay attention to what the ALJ has specifically asked you and try to answer only that question in a sentence or two. Don’t try to memorize what you are going to say as doing so will make your testimony sound “canned” and unconvincing. Instead, be yourself, and prior to your hearing, go over in your own mind how you want to explain the issues of your disability.
Don’t Ramble or Go Off Subject
If you are prone to “ramble on”, it’s important that you be prepared to provide precise answers to the ALJ’s questions. When you answer questions with longwinded explanations, the ALJ may stop listening and miss important statements you make, or he/she may become irritated. If you find yourself digressing from the topic of the question, refocus your answer.
Be Specific About Your Symptoms and Limitations
Specific answers give an ALJ a clear picture of your impairment. For example, if you suffer from back problems and the ALJ asks you to describe the pain, use descriptive words like “burning,” “tingling,” “aching,” “shooting,” or “dull.” Also clearly describe the location of any pain. This will help explain your disability and how it affects you. You must also be specific when describing your limitations. For example, if the ALJ asks you how long you can sit, don’t say “for just a little while,” state “30 minutes” or however long it is you can sit without pain.
Be Ready to Explain Gaps in Your Medical History
Sometimes, a disability claimant will have periods of time during which he/she received little or no medical treatment. An ALJ may question a claimant about these gaps in care. Be prepared to give an honest answer as to why you didn’t seek treatment. If you were without insurance, state this. If your symptoms briefly improved during that time, it is better to state and explain this than to give an untruthful answer, because once you lose credibility with the judge, you risk losing your disability claim.
Be Prepared to Explain “Bad” Facts
Medical records sometimes contain “bad” facts. “Bad” facts can hurt your case if they are not handled properly. For example, one common problem with people who suffer from pain is over-reliance on pain medication. In these cases, medical records may state that the claimant suffers from opioid dependency or is suspected of abusing pain medication. Here, the worst thing a claimant can do is to deny the problem or try to blame the medical provider. The best answer is the truthful one—for example, that there was a problem with pain medication and you are receiving treatment for the dependency, or that you switched or reduced medications to minimize the possibility of addiction.
Give a Snap Shot of Your Daily Living
ALJs often ask disability claimants to describe a typical day. You should describe how your disability has affected activities like cooking, personal care or watching television. Whether you need help in your day-to-day life is important information for the ALJ. If you require assistance from a family member or friend with grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, bill paying, or any other activity of daily living, describe the assistance you receive, how often you receive help, and why you need the assistance.
Be Honest and Don’t Exaggerate
The most important way to answer an ALJ’s question is with honesty. Some claimants feel that if they make their symptoms sound worse than they really are, they will have a better chance at winning their claim. However, exaggerating your disability usually has the opposite effect. Remember that ALJs hear hundreds of cases a year. They are well trained in recognizing when a claimant is magnifying the truth. If the ALJ believes you are exaggerating your symptoms, you will lose credibility with the ALJ, and if an ALJ doesn’t believe you, you will likely lose your claim for disability benefits.
Keeping Emotions in Check
One last word of advice, when testifying- keep your emotions in check as best you can. Don’t be angry.If you are at the ALJ hearing level of appeal, that means your claim has been denied and one may be rightfully angry and frustrated. Do not curse, yell, or complain about the government. ALJs are people and want to be treated nicely. Also, don’t be disrespectful. Do not have your cell phone ring, seem disinterested, chew gum or do anything else that may be taken as disrespectful and distracting.