Skip to content

Do I need an attorney to apply for Social Security disability benefits?

You have a right to professional representation in your dealings with the Social Security Administration (SSA). This could be an attorney or a professional disability advocate who has passed an SSA-administered exam and met other educational and occupational requirements.

Whether or not to seek such help is a personal decision and depends on your individual circumstances. But research has shown that having a professional representative can boost your chances of getting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the two SSA-run programs that pay benefits to people with disabilities.

A lawyer or advocate can fill out the SSDI or SSI application on your behalf and help gather medical records and other evidence for your claim. They can review your application for mistakes or omissions that could hurt your chances of success and can join you for meetings or conferences with Social Security officials. The SSA will work directly with your representative and provide access to information from your Social Security file.

Having an attorney or advocate can be especially important if you disagree with Social Security's initial decision on your claim and file an appeal.

Your representative can prepare you and any witnesses on your side to testify at a hearing before an administrative law judge, the second level in the appeals process, and can question expert witnesses that Social Security presents. A 2017 study by the federal Government Accountability Office found that people who are represented at disability hearings are nearly three times more likely to be successful.

How to find a disability attorney

There are thousands of attorneys and professional advocates across the U.S. with expertise in Social Security disability. Some advocates formerly worked for the SSA, as disability examiners or claims representatives.

Your local Social Security office can provide a list of legal referral services and nonprofit groups, such as bar associations and legal aid organizations, that can either provide or help you find representation. The National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives also has a referral service, and you can search online legal directories such as Avvo, FindLaw and for attorneys in your area who specialize in disability claims.

Once you've chosen someone to handle your case, you need to notify Social Security in writing. Download an SSA-1696 form from the Social Security website and send the completed version to your local Social Security office. Alternatively, your representative can file it for you electronically. Both you and your representative will need to provide an electronic signature for verification.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security is also permitting claimants to verbally appoint a representative during a telephone hearing with an administrative law judge. You must still submit the written notice afterward.

How much does it cost?

Most disability lawyers and advocates work on a contingency basis, meaning they only get paid if your claim is approved. Any fee agreement between you and your representative must be authorized by Social Security.

If your claim is successful, Social Security pays your representative directly out of your “back pay” — past-due benefits the SSA can award if it determines after the fact that you were medically qualified to receive benefits while still awaiting a ruling on your case. In a typical fee agreement, the representative's payment is capped by federal law at 25 percent of back pay or $6,000, whichever is less.

In certain circumstances, your representative may file a fee petition with Social Security requesting more than the $6,000 cap — for example, if your claim involved multiple appeals that required a lot of additional work, or if you switched attorneys midstream and both are seeking payment. Social Security must approve any additional fee.

You'll find more information in the Social Security publication "Your Right to Representation."

Keep in mind

  • Your lawyer or advocate is allowed to bill you for out-of-pocket expenses, such as the cost of having a medical report prepared, without Social Security's approval.
  • If your claim is ultimately denied and there is no back pay, your representative can use the fee-petition process to request payment, but they cannot collect if they signed a contingency-fee agreement upon taking the case.

Published May 20, 2021