Disability Lawyers: When to Hire & Where
If you are considering applying for federal disability benefits, there is plenty of information easily accessible to help you get started. The process of gaining disability benefits based on a medical condition, or what is known as a Social Security disability claim, is much easier than in the past.
The reason for this is the huge amount of information available on the web. Sifting through the information, however, is another story.
Both disability programs are now available to any applicant, at any age, with any medical condition. But the process of applying and being awarded benefits is far more complicated than it was in the early years.
For this reason, many applicants choose to hire a disability attorney or a licensed non-attorney disability representative.
Why Hire a Disability Lawyer
Social Security benefits for retirement require a trip to the local Social Security office, but the disability process is far more complicated.
Applicants must prove a disabling condition that will last for at least a year, and that will prevent the person from engaging in full-time work (or what is called "substantial gainful activity" by SSA).
The application process can take years, and involve multiple levels of appeal.
Bureaucracy and Paperwork
Even at the initial application stage, an attorney is helpful due to the amount of paperwork and arcane legalese involved in filling out the application forms. SSDI and SSI involve the same paperwork, but the local Social Security office determines if the applicant qualifies under Title 2 (SSDI) or Title 16 (SSI).
The Rise of Disability Law
A Social Security disability lawyer isn't hard to find and typically has reviewed hundreds or even thousands of claims at initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge, Appeals Council, and district court levels. Disability law firms exist in every state and can be found in every large city.
A law firm is a great resource because most provide free evaluations and they can help at all stages of the application process.
Disability attorneys know the ins-and-outs of disability insurance laws that vary from state to state and are deeply familiar with the specialized bureaucratic lingo needed to help applicants acquire Social Security disability benefits.
Should I Apply Alone?
The application process involves an interview at the local Social Security office. By filling out a preliminary online application, the time of the interview is cut in half.
Either way, the applicant needs significant documentation to complete the interview successfully and get the case file established. The initial claim requires a full list of medical facilities where the applicant has been seen, but that is only the beginning.
At the very least, we recommend that those planning to apply for Social Security disability insurance get support from a family member.
But for most applicants, an attorney-client relationship is the best way to approach the process, as it provides not only a helping hand but knowledge.
Even at the initial level, the Social Security disability case requires attention to detail, patience, and substantial background information.
When Should I Call a Lawyer?
Many applicants begin online and even make it to the window of a Social Security claims representative without assistance, but soon realize the process will be much easier with help.
The best time to get representation is at the initial level, even though this first-time application will not necessarily result in a federal court visit, or even an encounter with a law judge.
A little over a third of initial claims are approved, but the approval rates vary for those with an attorney and those who go it alone. Statistics show that a greater number of applicants who have attorneys are approved.
In addition, attorneys can help in establishing the date when your disability began, which can have a big impact on the total amount of money awarded.
Costs of an Attorney
Disability attorneys offer a free consultation and are paid when and if the case is won. Typically, this will involve 25% of disability backpay (i.e. the money earned from onset of disability to the time of award), or $6,000 - whichever is greater.
This means that past-due benefits are a motivator for an attorney, who will try to set the onset date as early as possible and work to obtain medical evidence to support the onset date.
The SSI Difference
Lawyers are especially helpful for winning SSI benefits. The SSI program involves the same application, but individuals who qualify for SSI usually have fewer economic resources to help with the application process.
Since attorneys aren't paid until they've won the case, a person with limited means can still get the help they need. Backpay for SSI awardees is usually paid out in three amounts, rather than one lump sum.
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Developing a Disability Case
Attorneys work with applicants to determine the date of onset of disability, termed "alleged onset date" or AOD. They also help the claimant sort out what disabling conditions are alleged.
Many disabled individuals have multiple medical issues, including physical and mental impairments, and every medical condition needs to be listed on the application.
Attorneys help clients to complete the application, from providing exhaustive contact information to representing clients in a court of law, and everything in between.
A Complete Application
Legal representatives help the applicant sort through the extensive application requirements. The application is several pages and it is easy to miss areas where important information is required.
Attorneys provide help filling out the application and answer questions about how to locate medical and other evidence needed for an accurate and complete application.
Acquiring complete medical records is an important step in applying for SSDI/SSI. If medical evidence is complete when the application is submitted, the process is much faster.
Attorneys are experienced and know how to efficiently obtain records from medical facilities.
After applying, the DDS may request additional paperwork, particularly forms such as ADLs (activities of daily living). They may send forms to friends, family, or employers to fill out.
All of this extra paperwork goes through the attorney, so all forms are available for review by the claimant who has hired representation.
The Hearings Process
When a claim is denied twice (at initial and reconsideration stages) it moves to an ALJ, then to the Appeals Council and then, for a small minority of cases, to a District Court.
At these junctures, attorneys are extremely helpful for two reasons: the claim needs to be settled in a court, and legal knowledge trumps medical knowledge in many cases.
The Chances of Winning Without Legal Help
By the time most individuals have gone through the initial application and reconsideration stages, which take up to nine months, they need to prepare for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
Online research shows that those with an attorney fare better than those without. At this stage, it's helpful to have an attorney to organize the evidence and help argue your case.
Both online surveys and recent government reports show that for those qualifying under SSI (the need-based program), applicants with attorneys were almost three times more likely to get benefits.
Representatives Can Win You More Backpay
Legal representation, especially at the beginning, may seem like overkill. After all, doesn't the government owe you the money you have paid into the system? While this is true, it is up to the applicant to choose how to define their own disability parameters.
What is the disabling condition, and when did it start? The AOD is therefore crucial, and it is possible in many cases to show the onset of disability years prior to applying.
Claimants who win disability receive payments from the AOD. If an individual is considered disabled months or years before the application date, he or she will be eligible for benefits from that date.
This means receiving not only a monthly check but also a lump sum that adds up all the prior months stretching back to the AOD.
In many cases, this can amount to thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in back pay from SSA.
Since attorneys are paid by a percentage of backpay (usually 25%), or $6,000, they are motivated to make sure clients get all the back pay they have coming to them.
Finding a Lawyer or Advocate to Work With
The best disability attorney is one who is experienced, handles a lot of claims and, in most cases, practices in your state. Moderately sized law firms are acceptable, but bigger firms often have more experience simply because they have served more clients and filled out more forms.
Finding representation is as simple as finding a disability law firm phone number online.
There are firms that serve multiple states, and these law offices will be up-to-date on current state laws that may affect disability claims.
Finding a lawyer to work with means taking the first step and contacting a law office. It is never too early or too late to get legal representation for help in winning disability benefits.