When you apply for Social Security disability benefits, it can take months—even years—to get a decision. The wait can be agonizing and, for some, financially devastating.
So, is there any way to speed up the process?
Yes. Many times, having a Social Security disability attorney or advocate represent you can speed up the application and appeals process.
While there's no automatic fast track for disability applicants represented by professionals, working with an attorney or advocate offers some distinct advantages. This article discusses how Social Security disability attorneys and advocates can help your application move through the system a little faster and get a decision on your claim sooner.
The fastest way to receive benefits is to get approval from Social Security based on your original application for disability benefits—rather than having to appeal the decision, which can take more than a year. An attorney or disability advocate understands what Social Security is looking for, so you have a better chance of winning benefits during the initial application process.
If you can find an expert to represent you at this stage, the lawyer or advocate can:
Without help, applicants often make mistakes that are hard to correct, from overestimating what they can still do to overstating past job skills. Your attorney or advocate can ensure your initial application doesn't contain language that can hurt your claim.
But an attorney or advocate will likely only take your case at this early stage if you have a good chance of winning your initial claim.
If your original application is denied, the next fastest way to receive benefits is to have an "on the record (OTR) decision." An OTR decision is when the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) reviews all the written evidence and awards benefits before the hearing.
There are advantages to having an attorney or advocate when you request an OTR decision. An attorney who specializes in Social Security disability can:
(Learn more about why you need to hire a disability lawyer to handle an OTR decision.)
If the OTR decision is denied, or you don't request one, you can request that your case be sent to a hearing. But whether you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, waiting a year or more for a hearing when you can't work because of a disability can be financially disastrous.
If you're experiencing financial hardship—that is, you don't have enough money for rent, food, or medicine—your attorney can write a "dire need letter" for you. A well-written dire need letter can get your hearing date scheduled sooner.
At the ALJ hearing, having a Social Security disability attorney can improve your chances of winning your appeal. Winning at this stage means you won't have to appeal your case to the Appeals Council, which can add years to the disability claims process. A disability lawyer can help you present your strongest case to the judge. Your attorney can:
Learn more about how a disability lawyer can help you win your disability appeal.
While there are a few other ways you might speed up your Social Security disability application, an attorney or advocate can increase your likelihood of being approved for benefits at each stage of the process. And the earlier in the process that your disability claim is approved, the sooner you start receiving your benefits.
A government study showed that applicants who had the help of a Social Security disability advocate or attorney doubled their chances of getting benefits. And a survey of our readers showed a similar advantage for disability applicants who hired a lawyer.
Plus, you generally don't have to pay a Social Security disability attorney if you don't win your case. If you do win, your attorney or advocate collects a one-time fee. And that fee can't be any more than 25% of your Social Security back pay (past due benefits covering the time you waited for your claim to be approved).
Social Security caps the maximum an attorney or advocate can collect at $7,200 (unless your case goes before the Appeals Council or to federal court). But most people don't pay that much. According to our reader survey, the average fee that Social Security paid to disability lawyers was $3,750.
For many, giving up part of their backpay is worth it to speed up their cases and improve their odds of getting benefits.
Learn more about hiring a Social Security disability attorney.
Updated March 22, 2023