Maybe it’s the sign of the times, but I’ve been getting a lot of emails recently from senior citizens asking if they can get Social Security disability benefits. The answer depends on a variety of factors. It can get a little complicated.
But I can begin with some relatively easy answers. If you are over your full retirement age (66 for most people reading this column), you can forget it. Once you reach that age, disability benefits are no longer payable. Or to put that another way, once you are full retirement age or older, a disability benefit pays the same rate as a retirement benefit.
And here is another easy one. If you are under age 62 (the minimum Social Security retirement age) and you become disabled, you should definitely apply for Social Security disability benefits. To be considered disabled, you must have worked and paid Social Security taxes in five out of the last 10 years, and you must have a physical or mental impairment that is expected to last at least 12 months. If your claim is approved, you get a disability benefit that is essentially equal to your full retirement benefit rate.
Now here are some recent questions I got from disabled seniors that demonstrate how things can get a little more complicated if you are between 62 and 66.
Q: I just turned 64 years old. I filed for Social Security retirement on my 62nd birthday. I’ve had some major health problems lately. Is it too late to file for disability benefits?
A: It’s not too late. But don’t expect a big boost in your monthly Social Security checks if your disability claim is approved.
Because you took reduced retirement at age 62, you are currently getting 75% of your full rate. As stated above, a disability benefit normally pays an amount equal to your age 66 full retirement rate. But from that amount, they must deduct roughly one-half of 1% for every month you’ve already received a Social Security retirement check.
It sounds like you’ve gotten about 24 monthly Social Security checks — meaning your disability benefit must be reduced by 12%. So, if your disability claim is approved, instead of getting the full retirement rate of 100%, you would get about 88%. Still, that is better than the 75% reduced retirement rate that you are currently getting.
Q: I have been getting Social Security since age 62. I am now three months shy of turning 66. I recently had open-heart surgery. Can I switch to disability benefits?
A: In your case, it would do little good. Assuming your disability claim would be approved, they would take your 100% disability rate and subtract roughly one-half of 1% for all the retirement benefits you’ve received so far. My calculations show you’ve gotten 44 retirement checks. So that means a 22% reduction must be applied to your disability benefit, leaving you with a 78% rate. You are already getting a 75% reduced retirement benefit. You’d have to decide if it is worth all the hassle of filing a disability claim to get the extra 3% per month.
Q: I am 62 and a half and was planning to file for my Social Security soon. But I’m in rather poor health. Should I file for disability instead?
A: You should file for both retirement and disability benefits at the same time. Your retirement claim will be processed in a week or two and you will start getting benefits soon after. But disability claims usually take a minimum of three months to complete. If your disability claim is approved, you will be switched from reduced retirement benefits to full disability benefits (with a very slight reduction for the few months’ worth of retirement checks you will have already received). If your disability claim is rejected, you will simply keep getting your reduced retirement benefits.
Q: I am getting Supplemental Security Income disability benefits because they said I didn’t work enough to get Social Security disability benefits. I am about to turn 62. I got a letter from Social Security telling me they are going to force me to file for my retirement benefits and that will cut me off of SSI and Medicaid. Can they do that?
A: Yes, they can. And I will explain to my other readers what is going on. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must have worked and paid taxes for five out of the last 10 years. So when you were told you “didn’t work enough to get Social Security disability,” what they meant is that you didn’t have enough recent work to meet that disability eligibility factor.
But the eligibility rules for retirement don’t include that “recent work” requirement. To get retirement benefits, you simply need to have worked and paid Social Security taxes for a total of 10 years anytime during your lifetime.
And because the SSI program is welfare, it works like any welfare program in that it is supposed to be a payment of last resort. In other words, you must file for any other benefits you are due before they can pay you an SSI check. That is why you must file for your retirement benefits. And if those benefits exceed your SSI rate, you will lose your SSI payments. But you may be able to keep your Medicaid benefits. You will have to check with your local welfare or social services offices about that. (They are the folks who run the Medicaid program.)
Q: I have been getting Social Security disability benefits since I was 58. I’m about to turn 66. Do I have to file for Social Security retirement? Will the benefit amount change?
A: At age 66, you will be automatically switched from the disability program to the retirement program. But your benefit payment rate will remain the same, so the conversion will essentially be transparent to you.