If you know you need to act, but you keep putting off filing for disability, you’re not alone.
The average applicant waits nearly eight months after becoming disabled before seeking benefits. That’s according to the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Maybe you're having trouble filling out the application. Or you applied before, and the SSA denied your claim.
If you’re thinking a lawyer would improve your chances of winning benefits—you’re likely right. If you’re wondering, “Can I afford one?”—you almost definitely can. Let’s break down how much a disability lawyer costs.
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How much do disability lawyers charge?
A disability lawyer costs nothing upfront. You only pay if your lawyer wins your case, and the SSA approves your claim.
You start with a free consultation. Then, if you decide to move forward, you sign a contingency fee agreement. Next, your lawyer submits documentation to the SSA for approval.
If the SSA signs off on the agreement, and your claim is approved, your lawyer collects the contingency fee. The industry standard is 25% of your first check. By law, the maximum a disability lawyer can receive is $7,200.
What they’ll actually receive depends on the size of that first benefit payment, which is determined by your “back pay.” We’ll dive into back pay more below, but generally speaking: The longer your case goes on, the more the government “owes” you for all the time you should have been, but hadn’t been, receiving benefits.
You’ll get paid all those “due benefits,” once you’re finally approved—and your lawyer will get 25% of that, up to $7,200.
The exception is if your case goes beyond the administrative law judge (ALJ) and into federal appeals, then the lawyer’s fee is 25% with no cap. Most disability claims don’t go past the ALJ because few people appeal after that stage.
This contingency fee doesn’t vary among social security disability lawyers because the law limits the amount. Plus, your lawyer doesn’t get any compensation from your future checks.
What is back pay?
Back pay accumulates while the SSA reviews your claim. The SSA determines your monthly benefit, then compensates you for the months between the onset of your disability andyour approval.
Determining back pay is all about dates. Here’s how Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) figure it out:
SSI dates back to the application date, or the date you became disabled, whichever is later.
SSDI dates back to the application date (minus 5 months) or the date you became disabled. With SSDI, if it’s determined you became disabled before you applied, you can receive back pay for the time between your disability’s onset date, and your application, as well. You can only get back pay for a maximum of one year.
Why do you subtract five months when calculating back pay? The SSA considers five months as a reasonable processing time for social security disability claims. You’re not “owed” anything for that stretch of time, and so you don’t receive that back pay.
For example, let’s say the SSA awards you $500 a month in SSDI benefits, one year after you filed your claim. Your first back pay check comes to $3,500.
500 because it’s $500 x 7 months, not 12 months.
As a contingent fee, your lawyer gets 25% of your back pay check, or $875. This deduction means you’ll see $2,625 on your first check, then $500 a month going forward.
What else could you be charged for?
You may be charged to copy medical records that verify your disability. Depending on your state, costs may include search fees, page fees, evidence fees, certification fees, x-rays, microfilm, and other media.
Some states like Alaska, Idaho, and South Dakota don’t allow health care providers to charge for copying medical documents. Others have a max fee of up to $250. Most lawyers won’t ask clients to pay this expense until they win their disability cases.
If your disability lawyer does ask you to pay in advance for expenses like copying documents, they must put your money in a trust account. Then, they have to tell you when they take out cash and return what’s left after your case is over.
Disability lawyers may also include travel costs, such as going to hearings, in their fees. However, they will likely seek reimbursement for those expenses from the SSA directly.
In addition, your disability lawyer can seek Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJ) fees if you appeal your claim. The government pays for that expense, too.
You don’t have to pay upfront for a lawyer to fight for your disability benefits. They work on a contingency fee basis and receive payment after the SSA approves your claim.
If a disability lawyer tries to get you to pay anything in advance other than document expenses, they may not have your best interests in mind.
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