by Edward Ballantine
In this article, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) lays out a roadmap for finding a Social Security lawyer that’s right for you.
Hiring a representative for a Social Security case can be a challenging and important decision. Representatives can talk to Social Security on behalf of their clients, do research on Social Security law and policy, represent their clients at hearings before Social Security Administrative Law Judges, and give advice. Many people are able to get Social Security benefits without hiring a representative, and others prefer to have someone guide them through the process and advocate on their behalf. Here are some things to consider when deciding to hire a representative:
What are your goals? A very common reason people hire representatives is to help with an application for Social Security disability benefits. Every case is different, but these cases can sometimes involve a lot of medical records and can take a long time for Social Security to decide. Some representatives only work on this type of case. Other representatives handle a broader range of Social Security matters: problems applying for retirement or survivors’ benefits, for example, or issues people encounter once they are already receiving benefits. Some representatives help with issues beyond Social Security, such as workers’ compensation, estate planning, setting up special needs trusts, or getting insurers to cover medical or other expenses. It makes sense to ask a potential representative what experience he or she has with the type of problem you are having.
Should you hire a representative? Many people applying for retirement or disability benefits have complicated problems, want more personalized advice about their specific situation, or are denied benefits for which they believe they qualify. These can be points where people consider hiring a representative. For more straightforward cases, the Social Security Administration has added many features to their website: in many situations, it is now possible to apply for retirement or disability insurance benefits online. It is also possible to get copies of earnings histories, benefit payment histories, tax forms for Social Security benefits, or other documents through the Social Security website. People who have trouble using the website can also call Social Security or visit a local Social Security office. People applying for or receiving benefits can also appoint a representative who can talk to Social Security on their behalf. The representative does not have to be a professional. When there are no complicated issues to work out with Social Security and the applicant or recipient of benefits has trouble communicating or traveling, a responsible relative or friend could be a helpful representative.
Is the representative a lawyer? Some professional representatives are lawyers and some are not. Non-lawyers can handle almost every Social Security issue, but they cannot represent clients in federal court. Before hiring a representative, it can be useful to discuss his or her training—about the law in general, and about Social Security law and policy in particular.
How does the representative get paid? The most common situation in which someone hires a representative is to help with a claim for disability benefits. In these types of cases, the representative and client will usually sign a “fee agreement,” which explains how the representative will get paid. Social Security claimants’ representatives generally work on a “contingency fee” basis. This means that the client does not pay when the representative is hired, but only if the client wins benefits. The representative’s fees are often paid directly from any Social Security back benefits. Back benefits, also known as retroactive benefits, are money Social Security determines a claimant should receive for months before they made a decision on the benefits claim. Social Security will review the fee agreement, pay the representative, and then give the rest of the back benefits to the claimant. It is important to understand any fee agreement before signing it, and to discuss how the representative will handle expenses like requesting a client’s medical records. Representatives have different ways of charging their clients fees for matters other than an application for disability benefits, especially when Social Security will not owe any back benefits even if the case is successful. It is always wise to read information about fees carefully and ask questions before signing anything. Save a copy of any agreement in case questions arise later.
Is there a representative who can assist you? Representatives may not be able to take every case that comes through their doors. Sometimes they do not have the time or expertise to handle a particular issue, or they might not feel that there is enough evidence to make the argument a potential client wants them to make. One way to find a representative in your area is to call the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) referral service at 1-800-431-2804. They will ask for your ZIP code and give you the phone number of a Social Security lawyer who works near you.
The National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR), established in 1979, is an association of more than 4,000 attorneys, non-attorney representatives, and paralegals who represent Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income claimants.
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