The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides assistance to people who have disabilities. A disability—for Social Security's purposes—is considered to be a medical condition that's so severe you're not able to work for 12 months or more. Although the SSA has guidelines and procedures in place for deciding whether someone meets the SSA's definition of "disabled," the process as a whole can be confusing and challenging for people who aren't familiar with it. The good news is that there are a lot of people and resources that can help you advocate for the benefits you need—and many of them provide free help with disability paperwork.
The benefit of having a friend, family member, or caregiver help you with your disability claim is that it's free and easily accessible—you may not even need to leave the comfort of your own home if you get help to apply online.
If you're looking for someone you know to help with your disability application, choose someone that is detail-oriented and a close reader. The disability application is not hard to file, but the SSA asks a lot of questions and it's important that you don't skip any questions or forget to answer all parts of the questions you're asked. If the paperwork you submit doesn't provide enough details, the SSA could use that as a basis to deny your application. For more information, see our article about the disability application.
A social worker is someone who helps people manage problems in their day-to-day lives and helps get them services to improve their life. For example, a social worker can help someone who is homeless find housing or help someone with cognitive difficulties find appropriate medical treatment.
A social worker might be able to help you with your disability claim at no cost. There are many steps of the disability process, and a social worker can assist with most of those steps, including:
But the services of a social worker are not available to everyone. Although eligibility varies from state to state, generally social workers who work for your state's department of human services are only available to people with a disability that are at risk of homelessness.
A claims representative is someone who works at a Social Security field office. A claim representative conducts interviews with people to complete their application for disability benefits. The interview may be completed over the phone or in person.
The claims representative can help you complete the application for disability benefits, but can't assist you past this initial point. For more information, please see our article about the role of a claims representative.
Legal aid clinics are nonprofits that provide free legal advice and services to low-income people. While eligibility ranges from state to state, generally people with household incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines ($18,225 for a one-person household in 2023) are eligible for free legal aid.
But even if you're eligible for legal aid assistance, you might not be able to obtain free legal assistance with your disability claim. Not all legal aid offices help at every level of the disability process; some only represent clients in Social Security overpayment situations.
Some legal aid clinics will help you with your disability claims, but many legal aid attorneys will collect a percentage of your back pay if they help you win your claim, although in dire need cases, they might not collect the fee. For more information, please see our article containing information about legal aid organizations and fees.
Attorneys and advocates (non-attorney disability representatives) are usually in the best position to be able to provide accurate and efficient help with your disability claim. Attorneys and advocates work with Social Security's rules and regulations on a daily basis and will know the best way to present your case to the Social Security office making a decision on your claim.
While attorneys or advocates can help you with every step of the process—starting with the initial application and taking your claim all the way through a hearing, or further if that becomes necessary, not all do.
Some attorneys will only take your case after you've been denied by Social Security; they won't help with your application. And some non-attorney advocates will only help you with your case up to the hearing, but don't represent you at the hearing.
Often the best combination is to work with a firm whose staff members will help you apply for benefits, and file appeal work if necessary, and then will hand your case to one of their attorneys if you need to go to a hearing.
Most, if not all, disability attorneys and advocates work on a contingency basis. This means that they only get paid if they are successful in getting you disability benefits. If you don't win, they don't get paid. So if you lose your claim, your attorney or advocate's services are free.
If you win your case, most attorneys and advocates will charge a fee, but Social Security has to approve their fee before it's paid to you. And Social Security's laws and regulations state that an attorney's fee can only be 25% of your disability back pay benefits, up to a maximum of $7,200, in most cases.
Social Security will deduct your attorney's fee directly from your back pay—so you don't have to worry about physically paying the advocate or attorney yourself. The average fee collected by attorneys and advocates is about $3,500, and usually much less if you don't have to go to a hearing. To see an average of fees recently paid to Social Security lawyers, please see our recent survey statistics.
Some disability attorneys do require that their clients pay for some of the costs associated with bringing the claim—either upfront or only if you win your case. Costs include things like fees for copying medical records or obtaining a medical report from your doctor. You should ask disability attorneys and advocates you interview whether or not they require you to pay such costs upfront or not. Firms like our partner Premier Disability Services, LLC do not require their clients to pay associated costs.
To take the next step, please see our article about finding a legal professional to help you with your disability claim. Or, if you'd like a free consultation, you can sign up for a case evaluation with our partner, Premier Disability Services.
Updated January 12, 2023