Do You Need a Social Security Disability Attorney?Updated April 13, 2020 Social Security Disability
Learn how a disability attorney can help your disability claim or appeal and increase the chances of your getting Disability Social Security benefits.
How can a Social Security disability lawyer help me get Social Security benefits?
Thankfully, Social Security Disability is one of the areas of law where you can obtain legal assistance without paying any money up front.
Under most circumstances, attorneys cannot charge you for their services until after they help you win your benefits. Even after you win, payment in this field is usually a painless process wherein SSA directly pays your attorney 25% of your back benefits or $6,000, whichever is lower, and then just sends you the rest!
Advantages of Having an Attorney
The ease of use and peace of mind that come with hiring a seasoned Social Security lawyer are not the only reasons to consider using an attorney when applying for disability. As with any other area of law, having an experienced professional working on your behalf can make a huge difference in getting the desired outcome. This is especially true if your Social Security Disability claim has been denied and you are in a reconsideration, hearing, or Appeals Council stage of the appeal process. Experienced Social Security attorneys know how to best navigate SSA’s many rules and regulations and they know what really matters to them.
Here are just a few of the ways a Social Security lawyer or trained advocate can contribute to having your Social Security Disability (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability claim approved.
An attorney knows how to present the most important information. Sending a lot of unhelpful details makes it harder for the claims examiner or judge to focus on the significant evidence that proves your disability. Experienced Social Security lawyers know what facts SSA really uses to award benefits, what items may negatively affect your claim, and how to avoid wasting time on information that will not support your case. They can guide you so that you include only the most relevant facts when completing all the required forms. Social Security lawyers know what SSA expects to see in an application. They may or may not need specific documentation from your doctor or your past employer and will not waste your time with useless requests.
An example of an error that someone filing their own claim can make that can negatively impact a claim occurs when unskilled or semi-skilled workers exaggerate their previous work accomplishments and job duties because they believe skilled workers have a better chance of being approved. However, to SSA it appears they have transferable skills that can be used in some other type of employment, and the claim may be denied because it seems they have marketable skills. This denial causes a delay in receiving benefits but can be appealed if the worker gets a knowledgeable representative, who will see the error and correctly present the work history to a disability judge.
Attorneys in Action at Hearings
Sometimes the judges do not dig deep enough to unravel all the intricate details of your particular claim. Since so many claims wind up at hearings, having a seasoned attorney really helps because it’s likely they have been working with you since the start of your claim and have gotten to know you and your claim’s nuances. So, if a judge asks a question and you give a possibly harmful answer, the attorney will be there to help mitigate the possible damage. They could do so by asking you questions about facts that the judge may not know to ask because they have not spent months or years talking with you about your limitations and your claim.
Similarly, your attorney may bring up details at the hearing that he or she thinks may actually sway the judge or change the Vocational Expert (VE) testimony, or help you strengthen a legal argument if you lose and need to appeal. It is important to be fully responsive to any question the attorney may ask, even if you wonder why it is being brought up.
Vocational Experts (VE’s) and other experts such as medical experts (ME’s) may be called to testify at your hearing. Experienced attorneys know how to question these experts and even how to discredit their testimony if it is not in your favor. There are only a handful of VE’s that each hearing office uses, so the VE’s and local attorneys often get to know each other very well. You may even see them chatting in the hallways outside hearing rooms. When your attorney is local, he or she has probably worked previously with the VE at your hearing, which may give your attorney an advantage in questioning the VE that you would never have.
Attorneys May Get You More Money
Not only can attorneys help you win your benefits but they can also assure that you are getting the maximum Social Security benefits you deserve. Some workers who have had worsening health issues over a lengthy period of time do not realize that they may be able to prove their disability began prior to when they finally stopped working and by doing so maximize their retroactive benefits for months occurring before application. An attorney will be able to analyze periods when you were on and off work to select the earliest possible date of disability by recognizing short, unsuccessful work attempts.
In another situation, sometimes a judge will offer to approve a claim if the claimant will agree to a later date of disability onset, resulting in fewer back benefits, if any. An attorney will help you figure out if amending your onset date really is in your best interest. Part of the assessment could include how successful the attorney believes an Appeals Council review would be in the event of a denial.
Strength in Numbers
If you have to go to court, you may feel stronger and better able to answer the judge’s questions clearly because you know that you have someone in your corner who knows the ropes.
My doctor doesn’t support my getting Social Security for disability. What should I do?
Get tips on what to do if your doctor doesn’t think you should get Social Security or SSI for disability. Find out about changes in the law regarding the value of attending physician statements and learn how a lawyer can help prove you’re disabled without your doctor saying so.
The Importance of Your Physician’s Opinion Has Changed
For claims filed before March 27, 2017, your attending doctor’s and your specialist’s support were very important to the success of your Social Security and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability claim because the attending physicians’ opinions were given special weight if the opinions were well supported.
That changed somewhat on March 27, 2017, when new claims filed March 27, 2017, or later began to be evaluated under some new guidelines. Among them is that your doctors’ opinions will be treated the same as any other medical opinion obtained in the course of your claim review. This means that if you are sent by Social Security for a consultative examination by an independent physician, your attending doctors’ opinions will be given no more weight than those of the consultant who has seen you once, unless there is something in your medical records or the reports makes your doctor’s opinion better supported than the consultant’s.
Similarly, your physicians’ opinions are treated the same as the opinions of a medical expert physician who testifies at your hearing or reviews your medical records and other medical evidence in file. No extra value is given for your physician knowing you. So, your doctor not supporting your disability claim with a statement that you are disabled or that you cannot work may not matter as much as it once did. Nonetheless the more supportive information you can get from your doctors the better, even if that only includes the doctors’ medical records for you.
What to Do When Your Doctor Doesn’t Support Your Disability Claim
The first action is to ask your doctor his or her reasons for not supporting your claim. Ask in a “just-want-to-understand” way, not in a confrontational manner. It may be that he or she does not understand Social Security’s definition of disability and thinks you must be totally disabled. When you or your lawyer explains that disability does not mean that you cannot work at all but rather that you cannot sustain full-time work to earn $1,260 a month (2019 rate) and that disability only has to be expected to last a year for you to be eligible, the doctor may agree that you are disabled as defined by Social Security law or at least be willing to provide information for SSA to make a decision. If you are blind, the benchmark level of earnings is $2,100. Earnings can be reduced by the amount of any Impairment-Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) before they are counted in evaluation for SGA.
Another possibility is that the doctor who is treating you for one condition does not know about other medical conditions you have or doesn’t know how they limit you. It may be that you are not disabled from all occupations based on just one of your medical conditions—even the most serious or recent one—but that you are disabled under Social Security’s rules when all your limitations from multiple conditions are considered.
Here’s an example: Perhaps you are claiming disability due to a recent lower back injury, but you also had rotator cuff surgery several years ago and have long-standing, upper-body lifting and range-of-motion restrictions. In addition, let’s say you have an irreversible, partial hearing loss that limits your ability to hear and understand speech in certain situations. When the long-standing limitations are added to your recently developed low-back problems, you may be unable to work due to all the conditions combined. In such a circumstance, you or your attorney representative can present your case to show how your total limitations from all causes disable you and why no one of your doctors has the total picture.
Letting your doctor know about other conditions may increase willingness to provide information; however, don’t expect a back doctor to make a statement about your hearing. For that you would need a current hearing test and a statement from the audiologist or ENT doctor about how the test results translate into hearing challenges in daily life.
Other Possible Evidence
If the doctor has kept good records about your diagnosis and treatment, the records may speak for themselves to reveal your limitations without your doctor stating them. However, if your doctor agrees that you have limitations and/or has told you not to engage in certain activities or movements, he or she may be willing to make a statement of what your limitations are without making a judgment as to whether those limitations constitute disability. If that is the case, especially if your records do not mention limitations or restrictions your doctor has placed on you verbally, it is worth a try to ask your doctor to write up a statement or complete a Physical Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) statement or a Mental Health Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) statement regarding your specific limitations and what causes them.
When All Else Fails
If the physician continues to decline to support your claim in any way, rely on the records. If the doctor refuses to release records, discuss with a Social Security attorney whether it is worth trying to get a court order. Whether or not you get the records or a statement from your physician, gather and submit as many other types of applicable records and statements as possible. Finally, consider strategizing with an experienced Social Security attorney.