The initial question that most new clients ask is “how much do you charge?”
For Social Security Disability/Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) cases, I normally represent my clients on a contingency fee basis. This means that I only receive a fee if my client is approved for Social Security Disability and/or SSI payments. The fee is based on the amount of money that an individual is owed by the Social Security Administration if they are approved. Federal law limits the amount that can be charged for representation in a Social Security Disability claim to the lesser of 25% of an individual’s past-due benefits, or a maximum fee of $6,000 (to receive a fee of $6,000, my client must be entitled to $24,000 or more in past-due benefits). My fee is based on all benefits my client and any dependents are entitled to from the date their disability began until the date that they are approved for benefits. I do not receive any fee from monthly benefits that my clients receive after they are approved. If my client is not approved for benefits, I do not receive a fee for my representation.
Normally my fee is withheld from my client’s past-due benefits and directly paid to my office by the Social Security Administration after my client is approved. To protect individuals that are applying for Social Security Disability/SSI benefits, the Social Security Administration must approve any fee that is charged. I am unable to charge a client a fee unless I receive written authorization from the Social Security Administration. Social Security also allows a client to submit a written objection if an unfair fee is being charged. Since attorney fees in Social Security Disability and SSI claims are regulated by federal law, the majority of Social Security attorneys throughout the United States charge the same fees for Social Security claims.
Although I will not receive a fee if my client is not approved for Social Security Disability Insurance/SSI benefits, I do require that my clients repay any costs that I incur. Costs are normally limited to medical records, medical opinions, copying and postage expenses. I explain to my clients (during their initial appointment) that additional medical documentation is normally required in order to prove that they are disabled. To reduce costs I provide my clients with an option of requesting their own records or medical opinions. The amount of costs that I incur while representing my clients depends on the stage of the disability process and the number of treating physicians. Whenever I pay for records directly on behalf of my clients, I send them a copy of the payment letter so that expenses can be tracked.
To reduce costs for my clients, I normally provide medical opinion forms for clients to take to their treating physicians for completion. In my experience, the most expensive evidence to obtain is a medical opinion. In Delaware, doctors charge an average of $150 to provide a medical opinion. Although I explain to doctors that my clients are responsible for repaying any cost I incur, I have found my clients can often save substantial money by taking forms directly to their physicians. Doctors are much more reluctant to charge their patients to complete a form during a scheduled appointment.
Since costs are not part of the fee, I send my clients an invoice for all costs incurred regardless of the outcome of the case. The Social Security Administration does not reimburse me for expenses, so my clients are responsible for repaying costs even if the Social Security Administration sends me my fee. I limit the costs I incur by only requesting those records that Social Security was unable to obtain.
At the initial and reconsideration levels of the Social Security Disability process, I provide details about my client’s treatment to the Disability Determination Service so that records can be obtained free of charge. If the Disability Determination Service does not receive a response from a treating doctor, I will request the records on my client’s behalf to avoid a denial due to incomplete evidence.
At the Administrative Law Judge level, the Social Security Administration will normally not request updated records. I review the Social Security Administration file with my clients, and I determine which records are needed for the hearing. I will provide my clients with an opportunity prior to the hearing to request necessary records directly from their physicians, or I will request relevant medical records. My goal in every Social Security disability claim is to incur only limited costs, and I always notify my clients if I believe that a doctor is charging an unreasonable rate for records.
If I find that a client’s Social Security Disability/SSI claim presents unique problems, I may be unable to represent the individual on a contingency fee basis. Unique situations that I have encountered include situations where: a client has a pre-existing overpayment with the Social Security Administration; a client owes substantial federal income taxes; a client is receiving workers compensation payments that would eliminate eligibility for monthly payments from the Social Security Administration; and/or, it is likely that a client will be approved for payments prior to the receipt of any past-due benefits. When I recognize that one of these situations will occur, I explain the situation to the client and discuss alternative fee arrangements. Every client that I agree to help signs a written fee agreement and has an opportunity to ask me questions prior to my representation beginning.