Attorneys Secure Disability Benefits Faster

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Hiring an attorney or other representative seems to be helping workers who apply for federal disability insurance.

Legal representation dramatically increases the chances that individuals with disabilities will be awarded benefits at the initial level of review of their applications filed with the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), new research finds.

Hiring an attorney has been common when applicants appeal an initial denial to an administrative law judge. What’s new is that they are increasingly getting help earlier – when they first file the application – from an attorney or, in some cases, another representative who has passed an SSA test on the agency’s administrative procedures.

But disability experts have debated the value of representatives amid concerns about unscrupulous practices, such as beefing up their fees by dragging out the application process. SSA pays representatives 25 percent of a client’s back benefits that accrue while he or she awaits a decision – up to a $6,000 maximum fee.

This study – the first to examine attorney effectiveness – finds justification for paying the fees. Attorneys increase the share of applicants who are awarded benefits at the initial level of review from a third to more than half, according to the analysis of SSA data for applicants who received an initial decision between 2010 and 2014.

Hiring a representative “leads to earlier disability awards to individuals who would otherwise be awarded benefits only on appeal,” the researchers said.

When workers go it alone, they are less effective than attorneys with experience navigating the complex application system. For example, SSA requires that applicants compile detailed medical records, including past treatments for the disability, and a complete employment history.

When attorneys get involved, the researchers found that they dramatically speed up the process and get faster decisions, knocking nearly a year off from start to finish on average.

Even when an attorney fails to win an award for a client, the client benefits. If a worker loses a disability case, it can be tough to find a job after having dropped out of the labor force for months in order to file the application.

A quick resolution of a case that is ultimately denied, the researchers said, “can facilitate a quicker return to the labor market and less decay of human capital.” This puts the worker in a better position to return to work.

To read this study, authored by Hilary Hoynes, Nicole Maestas, and Alexander Strand, see “Legal Representation in Disability Claims.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.