Relaxing Sneakers

What is the most a lawyer can charge for Social Security disability?

What’s the maximum fee in a Social Security disability case. 99% of cases work under this fee structure:

Contingency based: If you win, the attorney gets 25% of your back benefits up to a $6,000 cap. The “25% or $6,000”  fee agreement is a standard fee agreement that Social Security will almost always approve if the case is won and results in back benefits.

But there is second fee structure in Social Security disability cases that you should be aware of:Fee Petition. This is the wild west of fee agreements. The representative has to itemize his or her time and ask Social Security to be paid a certain amount. Social Security will approve whatever fees it sees fit, which may be more or less than $6,000.

If an attorney asks you to sign a fee agreement that is not either for a 25% contingency, or based on a fee petition, watch out!

Why would an attorney require a fee petition based fee agreement?

One reason is that some cases, such as overpayment cases, have no back benefits.  So, the 25% fee agreement will not work (25% of 0 equals 0). In those cases, an attorney has to do a fee petition and may require a retainer which is held in a trust account until the case is over and SSA approves fees.  This is discussed in detail here.

Other times, an attorney will require a fee petition fee agreement because he or she wants to charge more than the $6,000 cap.  If this makes you angry, hold on a moment. There are attorneys who take “lost cause” cases – cases where a person is trying to prove a disability started 10, even 20 years ago; cases which have taken more than 8 years with a the cases having multiple appeals to the Appeals Council and even District Court.  In those exceptional cases, a fee petition requesting fees in excess of the cap is reasonable. However, in most “regular” Social Security cases, the $6,000 cap protects the client from overpaying for legal services.

Tip:  keep in mind this is only for fees (paying the representative for his/her time and experience. This does not include reimbursing the lawyer for expenses (any money the lawyer spends to develop the case, e.g. costs for medical records).  Expenses are separate from fees and you may have to pay expenses even if you do not win (and do not owe any fees).

Social Security regulates what a representative can charge.

Social Security recently loosened their rules about who can practice in front of the Social Security Administration. Until recently, only lawyers could provide representation in front of Social Security and charge a fee.  Now, non-lawyers can set up shop and provide representation on Social Security claims.

However, the cardinal rule is that a representative (lawyer or non-lawyer), cannot charge any fees unless it is approved by Social Security.

Unfortunately, this is where some non-lawyer representatives play fast and loose. They may charge you some money up front and may not refund it if they lose the case.  Some people do not ask for the money because, “well, they took my case and they tried their best.” However, under Social Security regulations, a representative cannot charge any fee (remember, this does not include the representative’s expenses in building the case) unless it is approved by the Social Security Administration.

Of course, you may have the same problem with a lawyer.  But, because of the higher level of regulation lawyers work under, they are less likely to scam you.

I personally feel that since you are not paying any less for a non-lawyer on a Social Security case, you are generally better off getting a lawyer to represent you.

However, the touchstone of choosing a representative is deciding who is best able to help you.  Here are articles about questions to ask when choosing a representative.  Article 1Article 2.

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  • Gordon Gates

    no reason to wait to hire a lawyer. You should consult a lawyer early in the process, rather than at the end (when you have an ALJ hearing coming up). Since you pay the same fee either way, you should get the lawyer involved early. You will get more representation for your money, and you might win your case earlier (and pay a smaller attorney’s fee, too, because the back benefits are less).

  • Gordon Gates

    Great post, Tomasz!

    Since the claimant pays 25% of the back beneftits or $5,300 (whichever is less) with a standard fee agreement, there is no reason to wait to hire a lawyer. You should consult a lawyer early in the process, rather than at the end (when you have an ALJ hearing coming up). Since you pay the same fee either way, you should get the lawyer involved early. You will get more representation for your money, and you might win your case earlier (and pay a smaller attorney’s fee, too, because the back benefits are less).

  • suzy quill

    I just won my case after a 9 year fight. I ended up hiring a SSD specialist VERY late in the game. I would STRONGLY urge anyone to hire right up front. If you are filing for disability you have to have severe health problems which makes it very hard to build your own case anyway. Ask around and see who in your area has a GREAT, not good, but GREAT track record.

    • Guest

      Hi Suzy, Did you have to pay a high amount to your attorney in the end? We just won our case after about nine years and our attorney want almost 20,000.

    • Nikia Gray-Hutto

      Hi Suzy, Did you have to pay a high amount to your attorney in the end? We just won our case after about nine years and our attorney want almost 20,000.

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Hi Suzy!
    Thanks for commenting! 9 years?!? Wow! That was a loooong fight. Did you

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Hi Suzy!
    Thanks for commenting! 9 years?!? Wow! That was a loooong fight. Did you

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  • SS Disability

    Hiring a representative and paying them 25% of your backpay (up to a maximum of $6,000) is awful cheap to possibly end up getting a check for the rest of your life if you are found disabled. SS Disability attorneys cannot take 1/3 of whatever it is you get out of yoru settlement—unlike personal injury attorneys. Most SS Disability attorneys that I know that do this kind of work do it because they genuinely care about the disabled community and want to help them. After all, they could be spending their time somewhere else and making significant more money.

    The other thing that claimants have to realize is that they don't have to pay their representative anything if they don't win their case—so what do you have to lose? Hire a representative early on in the process and you will dramatically increase your chances of winning your SS Disability claim.

  • Laura

    Do lawyers charge a separate percentage fee on family benefits under the disabled parent?? Or is all capped in as one??

  • TomaszStasiuk

    There is a single fee cap. If an attorney represents the husband on a disability case & wins, the lawyer may receive 25% of the back benefits paid to husband PLUS 25% of the back auxiliary benefits paid to the wife and any minor children up to the fee cap.

    With the current $6,000 fee cap, all the potential fees from the case are bundled together and compared against a single $6,000 amount. If the totality of the potential fees exceed the $6000 fee cap, the attorney is only paid $6000.

    That is assuming the attorney was hired under the standard “25% or fee cap” fee agreement. However, attorney fees must always be approved by Social Security and if the attorney wants the fees calculated differently (flat fee or hourly fee), there is nothing preventing that. But, again, the attorney has to get fee approval from Social Security before accepting funds as payment.

    I am phrasing it this way because funds can be taken as a *deposit* toward potential future fees. However, those should be held in a trust account as they do not become fees unless and until Social Security approves a fee amount.

  • umme

    I just had mine take his fee from my husband, then the same $6000.00 fee out of my kids, so keep an eye on them. Talk about double dipping. This is by the way against the law ans SS is not happy.

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Yikes! I can only image what Social Security will do to that representative!

  • edward4591

    homelessness count as a basis for a “waiver of overpayment” in the amount of $35,000? Would recovery by Soc. Sec. defeat the purpose of the Social Security ?
    I have proof that I have been homeless for 3yrs. I have a hearing on the overpayment issue next week.

  • cheap lawyer

    Well according to my personal experience If you hire an attorney to represent you in federal court, after you have exhausted your administrative appeals, the fee will be different for that.So i suggest you to go for an attorney.

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Yes, once a Social Security case gets to Federal Court, attorneys fees change since EAJA (Equal Access to Justice Act) applies.

  • jenny

    My ex-husband recieved his back pay, his attorney took her 25% which was 6,000 and also took 25% of both of my childrens. 2,600. out of each is this allowed?

    • TomaszStasiuk

      The $6,000 fee cap usually applies to all fees on a single SSA case. So, if an attorney represents dad, and dad is found disabled, and mom and kids get auxiliary benefits, then there is a single $6,000 fee cap for attorney fees. This is regardless of whether the fees come from day’s benefits or from mom’s or kid’s auxiliary benefits. The attorney can get 6k max.
      Now, that’s when there is a standard 25%/6k fee agreement. The only other fee agreement allowed by SSA is a “fee petition.” The attorney can petition SSA to charge more than 6k.
      Regardless of whether the attorney does a 25%/6k fee agreement or fee petition, SSA *always* has approve any fees a representative charges. This approval is done in writing. So whatever a representative charged, there should be written approval. Could SSA have made a mistake and approved an amount above 6k? It could happen, particularly when there are auxiliary benefits (benefits to the disabled person’s spouse or kids).
      Keep in mind this is based on a single disability case (1 disabled person). I have done cases with multiple disabled individuals in the same family: representing mom on her disability case, and representing son on his own, separate, disability case. In that case, each case has its own 6k fee cap, because despite being in a family, they are separate cases. Mom’s disability does not mean that junior will win his own disability case and visa versa.
      Talk to the lawyer. Talk to SSA. This should be fairly simple to straighten out.

  • flaka

    my daughter father attorney charged him $ 6k for the ssd claim on feb 2013
    so i went to ssa office on august 2013 and i recived the award letter for auxiliary benefits for her and i see that she getting another $5072.00 from my daughter payback mind you its an auxiliary benefit.
    what can i do cause in 1 single claim she got 6k plus 5072 that equals to $11,072

    • TomaszStasiuk

      The $6k fee cap is from ALL sources. Social Security knows this. If it looks like SSA will pay more than that, give the local SSA office a call. It may be a matter of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Also, SSA will often withhold the 25% of back benefits as part of the calculation process even if is above the fee cap. Those excess fees are not paid to the attorney and SSA eventually pays that back to the claimant. However, if someone doesn’t want to count on Social Security getting it right, it is possible to call SSA to verify what is going to happen.

      As a practical matter, the lawyer should refuse / not deposit the check if it is beyond the fee cap. That may sound pie-in-the-sky, but the lawyer should know that taking a fee in excess of the $6k cap will likely result in an repayment demand from SSA down the road.


    Hi, I won my case and the attorney wants more then the cap, what can or should I do? I got 38,000 total and the attorney already got 6000.00 and wants me to pay around another 5000.00 or so. saying they did not take the 25% out of both ssi and ssdi is this right? thank you

    • TomaszStasiuk

      Hi Ken, thanks for writing. Fees are set by Social Security and have to be approved by Social Security. A lawyer (or non-lawer representative) CANNOT charge fees for practice before the Social Security Administration except as approved by Social Security. I’m saying this twice because is just that important. :)

      Lawyers choose at the start to work under either a fee cap (25% up to $6k) or fee petition (no fee cap, but they have to itemize their time). In either case, SSA has to approve the fee amount.

      1. Read your fee agreement to see which fee structure you are under.

      2. If a lawyer (or non-lawyer representative) is asking for fees from you (the claimant), ask for a copy of the notice from SSA approving that fee amount. No approval of fees, no payment.

      3. Check if the notice says if the amount *was already withheld from your benefits by SSA and paid directly from to the attorney.* You should not pay again for fees already taken out of your benefits to pay the attorney.

      If you have a fee agreement with a 6k cap, then I do not see how the attorney can ask for more. This really should not be a big thing. It should be a simple conversation, “You were already paid by SSA? Right? You got the fee cap, right? Do you have an approval of a fee petition from SSA? Has SSA approved any fees beyond the fee cap? No? Thanks so much.”

      These are just some initial suggests. This is not legal advice. I’m not your lawyer. Yadda-yadda.

      Good luck Ken.

  • Confused…

    My husband signed a contract with his disibility lawyer stating “If I receive any benefits under the Act after this date, I agree to pay for services performed before the SSA on disibility, non-disability, and payments issures connected with my claim(s), a sum of money equal to 25% of all monetary benefits received because of my disibility which accrue before regular monthly benefits begin to be paid in individual monthly checks or deposits in the monthly amounts due, including benefits paid to a spouse as a member of a disabled couple, auxiliary benefits paid to others, and interim benefits paid during pendency of the disibility claim, if any, but not less than the following minumum amounts determined by the administrative leel at which the claim(s) was finally practiced:
    Various amounts are listed up to $2750 after appearance for a supplemental hearing.
    My husband recently won his disibility and $6868 was awarded to the lawyers directly from SSA. Now the lawyers are questioning backpay that was awarded to our children.

    My question is, do they get 25% of children’s backpay amount as well? Are we protected by the $6000 CAP?

    • TomaszStasiuk

      Generally, the answer is both. The standard 25% up to $6k fee agreement usually considers benefits paid the the claimant and any auxiliary benefits (paid to the spouse and minor children). However, there is a singe $6k fee cap for the case (not $6k per person receiving benefits). Also SSA has to approve any fees charged. I do not see how SSA approved $6868 unless the lawyers filed a fee petition to increase fees beyond the $6k cap.

      Note: I am not telling you this is impossible or illegal or anything. It just does not make sense to me. Talk to the lawyer about the fee cap. Have them show you the letter from SSA approving the fee amounts. The fee agreement itself is not enough; SSA approves the fees. Without that approval, the lawyer cannot take any fees.

      If the dispute continues, it is possible to contest fees with SSA and through your state bar association.

  • Ula Dayle Staley

    Whats it called when an Attorney gets $$’s from some Federal Gov. monies, B4 applicant even gets a settlement? My atty told me in past (Form they fill out an request from) Will you share what that’s called, It has nothing to do with the 25% or $6,000? Thx, Ula

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