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It's not required, but you do have a right to professional representation in your dealings with the Social Security Administration (SSA). This could be an attorney, or a disability advocate who isn't a lawyer but 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.
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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 Lawyers.com 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.