The term "disability advocate" usually refers to a non-attorney representative who assists individuals with their Social Security disability claims. A nonattorney advocate is a professional who can answer your questions, help you fill out the application for benefits, and work with your doctors to get the proper medical records.
Disability advocates are experts at helping people with disabilities file their Social Security applications. Many times attorneys are too busy to help at the application stage; some don't want to hear from you until you've been denied by Social Security.
But getting help with your initial application is your best bet at getting benefits quickly, because it can take a long time to appeal. So it's important to get it right the first time.
Advocates know that it's really important to have the right medical evidence. They'll be able to "develop" the evidence needed for approval based on your particular medical conditions. That means they'll work with you and your doctors to get the necessary records and submit them on time to the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Social Security has established criteria that non-attorney advocates must meet in order to receive direct payment of their fees from the Social Security Administration (SSA). A disability advocate must:
It's important to understand when it might be important to have an attorney help you with your case; in many instances, a lawyer may be a better choice than a disability advocate to represent you at your hearing. To be sure, most non-attorney advocates perform diligent work and possess specialized knowledge about Social Security disability. But only some have experience going to hearings with clients.
Attorneys, unlike many advocates, have received specialized training in drafting hearing briefs, presenting oral arguments, and cross-examining witnesses, all of which may be necessary at a Social Security hearing.
Some applicants try to get the best of both worlds by hiring a disability advocacy firm, which will provide staff members to help them apply for disability and a lawyer if they have to go to an appeal hearing.
Here's what your representative needs to be able to do at a hearing.
Disability attorneys may be more adept at questioning vocational and medical experts than non-attorney advocates. Lawyers have been trained to aggressively cross-examine expert witnesses and exploit weak spots in their testimony. Disability claims are often denied because applicants don't challenge damaging testimony from vocational expert witnesses.
If your case is unsuccessful at the hearing level, and Social Security denies you again at the Appeals Council (the next level of appeal), a non-attorney advocate won't be able to handle appeal your case to federal district court. That means you'll have to find an attorney willing to jump into your case late in the process, after the evidence has been submitted and the hearing conducted.
Some lawyers will be reluctant to appeal a case to federal court if they haven't handled the hearing or Appeals Council stages. For instance, if the previous representative has failed to develop critical evidence or to properly cross-examine a witness, the new attorney may face an uphill battle in federal court.
Some attorneys have a better grasp of the Social Security rules and regulations that might come up at hearings than non-attorney advocates. Whether you're at the hearing level or the Appeals Council, it's essential for your representative to understand Social Security's many regulations, the HALLEX (a manual used by employees of Social Security), and any relevant case law.
In addition, it's common for attorneys to submit written briefs to judges prior to a hearing, and on appeal to the Appeals Council. A lawyer who understands the complexities of Social Security disability law is better-equipped to craft a persuasive argument than an advocate without legal training.
Disability advocates and attorneys charge the same fees for most disability claims. That's because Social Security regulations state that disability representatives, both lawyers and non-lawyers, may charge no more than 25% of the past-due disability benefits owed to the claimant, with a cap of $7,200.
Find out more about hiring a disability advocacy firm.
Updated January 12, 2023