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Winning Your Social Security Disability Case Over 55

By January 21, 2020April 16th, 2020Social Security Disability

We don’t often hear of situations where age is a positive determining factor. However, in the case of Social Security Disability (SSD), age can actually be a good thing. The Social Security Administration (SSA) wants to recognize your lifetime of work experience when awarding disability benefits. Therefore, age is a factor in your claim, and it may work in your favor.

Is age a factor in getting disability?

Yes. Age is one factor in the SSA’s disability decision. Your claim is more likely to be awarded if you are 50 years of age or older, you have a high school degree or less, your work background is in unskilled labor, and your medical condition prevents you from working.

Along with age, the SSA also considers your education, previous work experience, mental and physical ability to do work, and the current economy as part of its decision as to whether or not you are eligible for disability benefits. Judges often look for credibility when awarding disability benefits. A proven track record that includes years of work makes your claim for benefits more believable. Judges also understand that in a tight job market, it is harder for people over 50 to find work.

The SSA considers your ability to do any job, not just the job you did before you became disabled. This is one reason why getting disability becomes easier at age 45. According to the SSA, “For individuals who are under age 45, age is a more advantageous factor for making an adjustment to other work. It is usually not a significant factor in limiting such individuals’ ability to make an adjustment to other work…”

Is it easier to get SSDI after 55?

Your age, education, work experience, and ability to do work are cross-referenced on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines grid to determine the outcome of your disability claim.

These guidelines consider age first and give preference to older individuals because they are less likely to transition to other work. There are five age categories within the guidelines:

  1. Younger individuals, ages 18-44
  2. Younger individuals, ages 45-49
  3. Closely approaching advanced age, ages 50-54
  4. Advanced age, ages 55+
  5. Closely approaching retirement age, ages 60+

As an individual gets closer to advanced age and, eventually, retirement age, the journey to disability benefits becomes easier. Remember, the Social Security Disability age limit is the full retirement age of 67.

The Toll of Chronic Illness

Many disability applicants are unable to work until full retirement age because of a chronic illness. These types of illnesses often worsen as people approach advanced age. A study by Jackson Costa, titled The Decline in Earnings Prior to Application for Disability Insurance Benefits, illustrates the toll of chronic illness on older workers. Overall, the study shows that SSD applicants’ earnings stay steady for years. Then, earnings drop off significantly in the years before applicants stop working. The length of this decline depends on a claimant’s condition and age, among other factors.

Many claimants spend years working after the diagnosis of diabetes, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal or other chronic, progressive illnesses. Frequently, our clients applying for SSD benefits have tried part-time work, had short periods of time off work, have requested accommodations from their employers, or have taken less strenuous, lower-paying positions in an attempt to continue working. These older individuals continue earning, but their income drops to a much lower level. Workers’ efforts to avoid disability become obvious when we look at their earnings in the two to five years prior to the day they tell the SSA they first became unable to work.

The study also found that older workers, ages 50 to 55, experience a mean decline period of almost two years longer than those in the 26- to 29-year-old age group, the youngest group for which there is data. We expect that younger workers are not experiencing progressive illnesses like arthritis or Type 2 diabetes. Therefore, it makes sense the decline period would be shorter. It is more likely that trauma, such as a work injury or accident, caused the impairments.

Older Applicants Denied Disability Benefits

What happens when claimants over 55 are denied disability benefits? For disabled older Americans, the labor market can be a cruel place. Mathematica’s Jody Schimmel Hyde and April Yanuyan Wu discuss this topic in their study, titled Do Older SSDI Applicants Denied Benefits on the Basis of their Work Capacity Return to Work After Denial?

The study examined individuals who were over 50 and had worked long enough to be insured for SSDI. They had also all waited at least five months after the onset of their disability to file a claim. Hyde and Wu’s research suggests that employment rates fall most steeply for rejected applicants who came the closest to qualifying. These individuals could no longer do their past work but were capable of switching to other work. As a result, many older people denied SSDI benefits suffer financially.

Similar research, released by the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1989, also found that more than half of applicants who were denied benefits were not working four years after their denial. Many “did not expect to ever work again.” These individuals often lacked health insurance as well.

Social Security Disability Under 50

It’s easier to obtain disability benefits over 55 and younger workers applying for SSD should have realistic expectations. Mark was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his mid-40s. It didn’t come as a complete surprise, because Mark’s father had Parkinson’s. However, Mark was younger than most people who develop this disease. He worked as a purchasing agent and was able to continue working for the next ten years. When he could no longer work, he applied for disability.

“The SSA has a system that allows younger workers to qualify for SSD. However, since the person has not worked as long as they would have if they had reached retirement age, they receive a smaller monthly paycheck,” said Kevin Bambury, attorney, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC.

Social Security was not designed to replace more than 40 percent of the average retiree’s income. Those on SSDI receive an amount based on how long they have worked. In January 2020, the average disabled person received $1,257.88 a month, while the average retired worker gets $1,503 per month as of January 2020. One more reason to start saving for retirement at a young age is to have a cushion available in case you have to stop working early.

“If something should happen to you — as it did to Mark — and you can’t work, you and your family will be better off if you have more than just SSDI to live on,” Bambury said. “In addition, currently there is a backlog of 1.1 million cases in the system. In the Buffalo and Rochester area, it can take up to two years to get your benefits after you submit the initial application. The majority of our clients really suffer financially while they wait for a decision on their claim.”