Understanding Social Security Disability Advocates

Hiring a Social Security disability advocate can increase your chances of winning SSDI or SSI benefits. Here's how.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Social Security disability advocates help people apply for and get benefits through federal programs called Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Even though people can apply for disability on their own, and even appeal denials on their own, many choose to hire a representative to increase their chances of winning benefits.

At the initial application stage, only about 30% of applicants ("claimants") hire an advocate, but this percentage increases after they receive a denial. At the first level of appeal, called a "reconsideration," 72% of claimants hire an advocate, and at the hearing level, 81% of claimants hire an advocate.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions that claimants have about Social Security disability advocates.

What Is a Disability Advocate or Disability Representative?

The terms "Social Security disability advocate" and "Social Security disability representative" mean the same thing. They can refer to either a lawyer or a nonlawyer who helps people with their disability cases. An SSDI advocate is simply someone who supports you and fights for your cause; in the world of Social Security disability, an advocate answers your questions, works with your doctors to get the proper records, writes a pre-hearing brief for your appeal, represents you at your hearing, and generally helps you win disability benefits.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) refers to all people who help or speak for disability applicants as "claimants' representatives," or "reps." Some disability advocates or representatives are lawyers and some are nonlawyers, but nonlawyer advocates are more likely to help you at the application stage, while lawyer advocates are more likely to help you at the hearing stage.

If you decide to hire someone to help you apply for disability benefits or represent you at your Social Security hearing, you can choose either a disability attorney advocate or a nonattorney advocate.

What's the Difference Between an Attorney Representative and a Nonattorney Advocate?

A disability advocate who's an attorney has gone to college, graduated from law school, and passed the state's bar exam to be admitted to the state's bar association of attorneys. In law school, the advocate learned how to spot legal issues and develop legal theories, glean the law from reading prior cases, cross-examine witnesses, and write legal briefs, all of which can help represent a client at a Social Security hearing.

To act as a nonlawyer disability advocate and get paid from a client's Social Security backpay benefits, an individual must either have gone to college or have training and work experience that's considered equivalent, passed a written exam given by Social Security on Social Security procedures, and passed a criminal background check. Social Security calls advocates who have passed the exam (and thus become eligible to get paid directly from Social Security) "eligible for direct payment non-attorney representatives" (EDPNAs).

Both attorney representatives and EDPNAs must complete continuing education requirements each year, and both must carry malpractice insurance.

Attorneys are bound by the "attorney-client privilege," which prevents them from divulging a client's sensitive and potentially embarrassing information. They are also bound by professional conduct rules requiring them to competently represent their clients, charge only reasonable out-of-pocket costs, return phone calls within a reasonable time period (or otherwise respond to your requests for information), and keep you up to date on the status of your claim. If you feel your attorney is violating these rules, you can file a grievance with their state bar. There are no parallel or similar rules or requirements for nonlawyer advocates.

One additional difference: a nonattorney advocate can help you file a claim and can represent you at a Social Security appeal hearing, but can't handle your appeal after the Appeals Council step; only a disability lawyer can represent you in federal district court.

For more information, see our article on hiring a disability attorney vs. nonlawyer advocate.

Is It Cheaper to Hire a Nonlawyer Disability Advocate?

Both lawyer advocates and nonlawyer advocates are regulated by Social Security in the fees they charge, and they generally charge the same fees. Both types of Social Security disability advocates are required to work on "contingency," meaning they get paid only if you win your case.

Whether they are lawyers or nonlawyers, advocates can charge only 25% of the backpay award you receive (the lump sum of monthly benefits going back to when you first became disabled or applied for benefits), up to a maximum of $7,200. Even disability advocates who work for legal aid agencies almost always charge 25% of disability backpay for their services.

In addition, both lawyer and nonlawyer advocates can charge fees for out-of-pocket costs, such as copying and postage.

We surveyed readers about how much they ended up paying their representatives. For the details, see our article with survey results on how much disability advocates charged their clients.

How Long Has Social Security Allowed Nonattorneys to Represent Disability Claimants?

In 2004, Congress passed the Social Security Protection Act of 2004, partially to address the huge backlogs of disability claimants (applicants). The Act temporarily allowed Social Security to pay nonattorney advocates who helped claimants, by directly withholding a portion of the claimant's backpay owed by Social Security.

The thinking was that there weren't enough disability lawyers available to help claimants, and that allowing nonattorney representatives to represent claimants would help speed claims through the system. Having a representative on a case helps Social Security because cases would be better developed by the time they came to Disability Determination Services or an administrative law judge. The Act initially approved Social Security's paying nonattorneys for only five years, but it has since been extended.

The Act also extended the attorney fee withholding process to SSI cases as well (previously, the Social Security Administration paid attorneys out of their clients' backpay only for SSDI cases).

Do I Need to Hire a Disability Advocate or Representative?

Your chances of winning Social Security disability benefits or SSI are higher if you're represented by an SSDI advocate. Both lawyer and nonlawyer advocates know the medical evidence you need to win benefits for your particular condition and the ins and outs of Social Security's rules and shortcuts. Disability attorneys also know how to cross-examine the vocational expert at an appeal hearing and how to make sure you're properly prepared for questioning at your hearing.

This knowledge adds up to giving a leg up to disability applicants who are represented by disability advocates. In fact, we surveyed readers who had recently been through the disability process, and our results support this conclusion, as do recent government studies. For details, see our survey results on the value of hiring a disability representative. (And for more information, see our article on whether you should hire a disability advocate or go it alone.)

How Can I Find a Disability Advocate or Representative?

If you know anyone who's recently won disability benefits, you might ask if they can recommend their disability advocate. If you get a disability lawyer's name through this route, make sure the lawyer is in good standing with the state bar and not subject to any discipline.

If you don't know anyone and you'd like help with your application or hearing, click for a free case evaluation with a legal expert.

Updated October 28, 2022

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