Think You Can’t Afford an Attorney? Think Again!

Some people seeking help with disability claims are hesitant to contact an attorney because they think they can’t afford one. If that’s holding you back, relax! Unlike other areas of law where attorneys charge $200 per hour, those handling Social Security Disability cases don’t charge AT ALL until a client is awarded benefits.

It may seem too good to be true that you can talk to an attorney for free, but that’s the rules. Lawyers dealing in Social Security matters are hired on a contingency basis. It doesn’t matter if you are applying for SSDI benefits (which are based on your work history) or SSI (based on financial resources). No fee unless you win your claim — no matter how long it takes. Attorney fees come out of any back benefits that you are awarded.wallet

If you hire us to represent you, one of the documents you sign is a Retainer Agreement. The amount we are able to charge is set by law. Currently, fees are limited to 25 percent of back pay or $6,000, whichever is less. This agreement also applies to anyone else awarded benefits under the claim, such as minor children (who are awarded benefits if a parent is found disabled).

However, medical record fees are not included in that amount. This means we do pass on the charges imposed by doctors and their offices for providing us with medical documentation necessary to win your case. Obviously, we can’t absorb all the costs associated with obtaining medical records for all our clients. Those fees must be paid by clients whether the claim is approved or denied. And we send you notification of these as we request records along the way, so you aren’t surprised by the charges all at once when you claim is settled.

Once benefits are awarded and the Social Security Administration has approved the attorney fees, they generally withhold that money out of theback benefits and pay it directly to the attorney. Once in awhile, mistakes happen, and the fee is not withheld. In that case, clients are responsible for paying the fee out of benefits they received.

In the event a disability case requires more than one hearing, or hearings at a higher level such as the Appeals Council or in federal court, an attorney is permitted to request payment in excess of the $6,000 limit. In those instances, the attorney files something called a Fee Petition with SSA, which decides whether to approve the higher charge.

Occasionally, people who have hired attorneys or disability firms to represent them no longer want their services and want to switch. This happens for various reasons. But some are afraid to make the change because they were told by the previous rep that it will cost them double and they will need to pay both. This is absolutely false! If the previous attorney or rep won’t waive their fee for the case, it is up to SSA to decide how the fees are allotted between the two. The maximum, total amount remains the lesser of 25 percent or $6,000.

Don’t let a tight budget keep you from contacting us. Call or e-mail us and set up an appointment. You’ve got nothing to lose — and possibly much to gain.

 

 

 

 

What the Heck is Taking So Long??

calendarWe get this question all the time from clients wanting to know why they haven’t heard anything in months about their Social Security Disability claim.

The answer? Backlog. Not in our office, but in hearing offices across the country that are inundated with claimants appealing denials and requesting hearings.

The SSA web site, ssa.gov, publishes a report, updated monthly, on the length of time it takes Offices of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODARs) to schedule a hearing from the time they receive the request. As of October 2015, the shortest wait time was reported by Fort Smith, Ark., (7.5 months). The longest: Columbia, S.C., at 21 months. Local wait times in months (as of October 2015) are as follows: Chicago, 15.5; Grand Rapids, 13; Oak Brook, 16; Orland Park, 14; and Valparaiso, 16.

Add to this the fact that in most states (including Indiana and Illinois), claimants are denied twice before requesting a hearing, and that means many claimants wait two years from the date of their disability application until the time of their hearing.

The wait is frustrating, especially when people are facing serious health and financial issues. Two years is a long time to go without income. Many people, incorrectly, assume that their attorney or rep isn’t doing what’s necessary to move their case along (especially when they find out someone else was awarded benefits at an earlier stage) but most of the time, that simply isn’t the problem.

Once a Request for Hearing is filed, there usually isn’t anything to do but wait. In rare cases, clients may qualify for “dire need,” based on their financial circumstances. The criteria for this, however, is very strict  and even when a claimant fits this category, it usually speeds the process up by only a few months. Sometimes a claimant’s medical issues are deemed severe enough by Social Security that they push up the timeline for a hearing or approve benefits without waiting for a hearing. Again, these criteria are very specific and most claimants don’t meet them.

Rest assured that we are well aware of these avenues and explore them whenever we are confident they may apply to our clients. Most claimants, though, can expect to wait well more than a year for a hearing date. Some people see applying for disability as a quick solution to their financial woes but in fact, it’s best not to count on that help short-term.

While clients wait for a hearing, many ask why we haven’t requested their medical records from their doctors. It’s simply not in their best interests to do that too early, unless we suspect a client qualifies for one of the above categories. Most physicians charge us for supplying medical records, and that is a cost we must pass on to clients. If we request documentation too early in the process, we’ll have to request updated records when it gets closer to the hearing, because we need the most recent information when making our case before an Administrative Law Judge. Records from two years ago won’t prove the client is disabled now.

While we know this isn’t welcome news, we feel it’s best for people to know what they’re facing. Our clients can count on us for honest evaluations of their claims and straightforward answers. If that’s what you’re looking for, give us a call!

 

 

When Mental Health Keeps you from Working

stress photoAwareness of mental illness has come a long way, but it can still be tough to prove it’s a disabling condition, at least according to Social Security criteria.

In our practice, we often hear statements like, “My neighbor’s son got disability just because he said he was depressed (or is bipolar, or has anxiety).” While Social Security does award benefits to individuals based on mental impairment, the truth is that such cases often face more of an uphill battle than do claims based on physical limitations.

Part of the reason for this is obvious: one can see when a person has trouble walking, lifting or breathing, but it’s not always apparent when someone suffers from mental issues. However, just because the case is hard to win doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Social Security lists a number of mental impairments that warrant disability coverage, provided they are severe enough. These include: schizophrenia, autism, anxiety, intellectual disability, depression and bipolar and substance abuse disorders. However, not only does there need to be a diagnosis of such impairment, there has to be proof that it affects the person to the point that it severely impacts their ability to hold a job.

Claims for mental disability are strengthened when the person has complementing physical problems, such as suffering depression because they are in so much pain or due to the limitations and isolation caused by other illnesses. The person seeking disability also should be treated by a medical professional specializing in mental health; simply getting a prescription for an anti-depressant from their family doctor won’t carry much weight. Because the symptoms of some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, can fluctuate, there also have to be treatment records covering a fairly extensive time span, indicating consistent treatment and/or how the symptoms may fade, only to reappear.

Good documentation is key. In addition to getting records from your doctor, we have questionnaires that make it easier for him or her to focus on the information Social Security needs to completely and fairly evaluate your mental health claim.  Don’t be afraid to tell your physician about your symptoms — some people still fear there is a stigma associated with mental or emotional disorders and hesitate to speak up.  We can’t prove what we can’t document!

Be sure to take medications as ordered by your doctor; non-compliance will only hurt your case. Information from former co-workers or family members who saw how your conditions impacted your behavior play a part as well.

These are all pieces of the Social Security Disability puzzle for mental health. Let us show you how they fit together!

 

Plain Speaking

Close up of social security applicationDo government employees seem to speak a foreign language when you try to get information? You may be interested to know that The Center for Plain Language recently awarded the Social Security Administration top marks on how clearly it communicates with the public. That being said, we know a lot of terms used by the SSA can be confusing for many, who often are learning about their benefits for the first time. We’d like to make it a little easier, so here are a list of some commonly used terms and what they mean:

  • Disability. This refers to either the mental or physical impairment a person has or to a type of benefit. It often serves as shorthand to mean the benefits a person has earned through Social Security taxes paid on income they’ve earned (as opposed to SSI, in the next item). Social Security uses very specific criteria when determining if someone is disabled. Even if your doctor says you can’t work. you may not be considered disabled according to SSA guidelines.
  • Supplemental Security Income. This also is a type of disability benefit, but it isn’t earned through taxes on income and is only available to those whose assets fall below a certain level. SSI awards are lower than those earned through work history and don’t go back as far as “regular” disability benefits. The same medical criteria are used for SSI purposes.
  • Date Last Insured. The date a person’s eligibility for regular disability benefits ended. That date is based upon how long ago a person last worked. If a person’s impairment is not found to have started before this date, they are not eligible for regular disability benefits.
  • Appeal. A person has 60 days from the time a decision is made on their claim to appeal that decision. This involves submitting forms and medical information showing benefits should not have been denied.
  • Re-apply. People often confuse appealing with re-applying. Appealing means to ask that a denial on a current claim be reversed. Re-apply means to begin an entirely new application/claim.
  • Representative. This can be anyone you designate to serve as your “helper” on your claim or appeal. Representatives do not have to be attorneys and in fact, many are not. Those using the title “advocate” are likely not attorneys.
  • Credits. Credits are based on the amount of your earnings. In 2015, you receive 1 credit for each $1,220 of earnings, up to 4 credits per year. Starting at age 31, you must have 20 credits in the 10 years before you became disabled to quality for regular disability benefits. Those becoming unable to work at a younger age need fewer credits.
  • Substantial work. SSA usually considers work substantial if gross earnings average more than $1090 per month, after deducting allowable amounts. You may be working less or at a less physically demanding job, but it may still be considered for SSA purposes. If SSA finds that a person can perform substantial work, they are not considered disabled under SSA guidelines.

Hopefully, this list will help with some of your conversations regarding Social Security disability. Still confused? Maybe we can help. Give us a call if you’d like to sit down face-to-face with someone to translate the jargon.