Unlike many attorneys, Social Security disability lawyers don't charge up-front fees or require a "retainer" to work on a disability case. Most disability attorneys and nonlawyer representatives will be paid a fee only if they win your case (this is called a contingency fee).
How much does a disability lawyer cost? The answer depends on how long your case takes and how much you receive in disability benefits. Here's what you need to know about Social Security disability lawyers' fees, and how much you might have to pay.
When you first hire a disability attorney or nonlawyer advocate, you typically sign a fee agreement (whether you're filing for SSDI or SSI). The agreement puts a cap on the representative's fee and allows the Social Security Administration (SSA) to pay your representative if your claim is approved.
Social Security will review the agreement to check if it meets the fee agreement guidelines, to make sure your representative receives a fair amount, but no more. Fee agreements must be on a contingency basis (meaning the attorney or advocate will only be paid if you win your disability claim).
Disability attorney fees are usually a few thousand dollars, and can't be more than $7,200.
When you sign a fee agreement with an SSDI attorney or a nonlawyer advocate, the fee is limited to 25% of the past-due benefits you're awarded, up to a maximum of $7,200. (Some fee agreements do allow a separate fee to be charged if you appeal to federal district court, but most cases end at the Social Security hearing stage.)
Your representative will be paid only out of your past-due benefits, or "back pay." If Social Security doesn't award you back-dated benefits, your representative won't receive a fee. But in this situation and a few others, the representative is allowed to submit a fee petition to Social Security to request a fee.
We recently surveyed readers of this site who had won their case and asked them about how much back pay their disability representatives took. The majority of claimants in our survey paid their disability representatives less than $4,000. (For the details, see our survey statistics on the average fees paid to Social Security disability lawyers, both when a lawyer represented a disability applicant at a hearing and when the applicant won benefits at the initial application stage.)
Once you're approved for benefits, Social Security will calculate the amount of backpay you're owed. For SSDI, your backpay will include the retroactive benefits you're owed from the date you were approved for benefits back to the date Social Security determined your disability began (for a maximum of 12 months back from the date of your application).
For SSI, your benefits are calculated from the date you're approved for benefits back to the month after you applied for benefits. (For more information, see our article on disability backpay.)
Again, the maximum a disability attorney or nonattorney advocate can charge is 25% of your backpay, up to a maximum of $7,200. For example, if your back-dated benefits are calculated to be $10,000, your representative will be paid $2,500 and you will receive $7,500.
It doesn't usually cost you anything upfront to hire a legal representative; their fee will be paid out of the disability award you eventually receive. Some disability lawyers, however, will ask you to pay a nominal amount for costs (see below) at the beginning of your case.
When do you have to pay the representative's fee? Usually, you don't. Social Security takes the entire representative's fee (up to $7,200) from your award of backpay, before the agency sends the money to you.
During the time a disability firm represents you, your SSDI attorney or advocate, or their staff, usually has to request your medical records, work records, and sometimes school records. Your representative might even send you for a medical or psychological examination; these out-of-pocket costs can be expensive. Other costs can include charges for copying and postage.
Most, but not all, representatives require their clients to pay these costs separately from the fee they receive out of their back pay. But it's unusual for these costs to exceed $200 per case, and usually, the out-of-pocket costs are much lower.
Sometimes a disability lawyer will ask for money in advance to pay for the out-of-pocket costs. Social Security does allow this, as long as the representative holds the money "in trust" until it's needed. But most attorneys and advocates "front" these costs for their clients. Then, once the case has closed, regardless of whether you win or lose, the attorney will send you a bill requesting reimbursement for any funds fronted on your behalf.
Before hiring a disability lawyer or nonlawyer advocate, you should ask whether you will be charged for out-of-pocket expenses in addition to the lawyer's fee or advocate's fee, and what types of expenses might be included.
Read our article on how to find a good disability lawyer (and how to screen a lawyer before you hire one).
Updated May 23, 2023