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Senior Citizens and Social Security disability
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It must be a sign of the times, but almost every single day I get emails from seniors asking if they might be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Baby boomers (like me) aren't just getting old; some of us are also getting frail. Our bodies are breaking down at a record pace! I'm probably a pretty good example. After a lifetime of essentially good health (I was once honored for using the fewest sick leave days by my former employer), in the past year or so, I've had to deal with issues as severe as blood clots and as minor as a bum knee. I probably could file for Social Security disability benefits and have my claim approved. But frankly, I just don't have the gumption to do so. I'm content with my retirement benefits.

But again, judging from my emails, many seniors and near seniors are interested in filing for Social Security disability. I'll offer some tips on how to go about doing that in a minute. But first, here are some ground rules.

If you are 66 or older, forget about it. Once you reach that age, disability benefits are no longer payable. Or to put that another way, a retirement benefit pays the same rate as a disability benefit for people over age 66.

If you are under age 66 and have never filed for any kind of Social Security, then you are ahead to file for Social Security disability. If you are over 62, the Social Security people will probably suggest you file for retirement and disability benefits at the same time. They can start your retirement payments right away. Then if your disability claim is eventually approved, they will switch you to the higher disability rate.

But if you are between age 62 and 66 and are already getting Social Security retirement benefits, you may or may not be eligible for disability payments. The closer you are to 66, the less likely you are to be eligible for such benefits. That's because your disability rate (normally equal to your full age 66 retirement benefit) must be reduced for every month you've already received a Social Security retirement check. And you will eventually reach a point where you simply gain nothing by filing for Social Security disability.

Here is a quick example of that. Sam filed for retirement benefits at age 62. His benefit was reduced roughly one-half of one percent for each month he was under 66. He is getting 75 percent of his full age 66 retirement rate. At 65, he had a heart attack. If he files for disability benefits and if his claim is approved, his regular disability rate, again equal to his full age 66 benefit, must be reduced by about one-half of one percent for each month he's received a retirement benefit. At age 65, he's already received 36 retirement checks, so his disability rate must be cut by about 18 percent. So instead of a 100 percent disability rate, he'd get about 82 percent. Sam would have to decide if it is worth all the hassle of filing for disability just to get bumped up from his current 75 percent rate to 82 percent.

And speaking of "all the hassle," here is a quick rundown of the Social Security disability application process.

First, you will fill out a bunch of papers. The primary one is a form that asks you to describe your disability and how it prevents you from working. That latter point is the key. You don't get disability benefits simply because you have some kind of physical or mental impairment. You get disability benefits because you have a physical or mental impairment that keeps you from working. So you must describe in detail how your disability prevents you from doing your job.

That same form also asks you to list your medical providers. The government can't make a decision about your case without having the evidence to back up your claim. So make sure you thoroughly list the names, addresses, phone numbers and any other contact information you have for every doctor, hospital, clinic or other medical professional from whom you've received treatment.

There is a pretty good chance you will be asked to go to a "Social Security doctor" for additional evaluation. Make sure you don't miss that appointment.

Your disability claim will usually take about three months to process. If it's approved, you'll start getting disability checks six months after they say your disability began. (That six-month waiting period is built into the law.)

If your claim is denied, you will have to decide if it is worth it to appeal that decision. You may figure (as I have) that you are simply ahead to stick with your retirement benefits.

Q. I have been getting Social Security disability benefits for about six months. And just recently, I was approved for worker's compensation payments. As soon as those checks started up, my Social Security was reduced. Do you know what's going on? Do you think I should hire a lawyer?

A. Yes I know what's going on. And no, you don't need a lawyer. There is a rule that says the combination of your Social Security disability benefit and your state worker's compensation payment cannot exceed 80 percent of your pre-disability working income. If the two payments do exceed that limit, one or the other must be reduced. In some states, the worker's compensation payment is cut. But in most states, including yours, the Social Security disability benefit is offset.