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Social Security Disability Over 55: Odds of Winning Your Case

By January 21, 2020April 30th, 20247 min read

Obtaining Social Security disability benefits is often easier said than done. The Social Security Administration (SSA) can deny even valid claims for many different reasons. However, age is a factor in disability claims, and it may work in your favor. The odds of winning disability claims increase the older you get, especially after age 55. This is because it’s more likely that individuals aged 55 or older may have a medical condition that leaves them unable to continue working.

Is age a factor in getting disability?

Yes, the SSA does factor age into disability claim decisions. Your claim is more likely to be awarded if you are 50 years of age or older. Along with age, the SSA also considers your education, previous work experience, mental and physical ability to perform work, and the current economy as part of its decision. Age is considered along with these other factors because, as a person ages, it may become harder for them to support themselves financially. Work duties may become too difficult, and they may not have the skills or educational background needed to make a career change at their age.

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 beginning 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…”

Social Security Grid Rules Over 55

Your age, education, work experience, and ability to do work are cross-referenced on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, also called the Social Security grid rules, 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:

  • Younger individuals, ages 18-44
  • Younger individuals, ages 45-49
  • Closely approaching advanced age, ages 50-54
  • Advanced age, ages 55+
  • 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 Age and 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 SSDI 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, individuals applying for SSDI benefits have tried part-time work, had short periods 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 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, so those younger than 55 applying for SSDI 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. Though the SSA has a system that allows younger workers to qualify for SSDI, these individuals haven’t reached retirement age so they will receive a small monthly paycheck.

Social Security was not designed to replace more than 40% of the average retiree’s income. Those on SSDI receive an amount based on how long they have worked. In January 2024, the average disabled person receives $1,711 a month, while the average retired worker gets $1,907 per month. 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 you encounter a situation such as Mark’s, you and your family could benefit from having more than just SSDI benefits. Benefit decision wait times are now the longest they’ve been in nearly 10 years. Unfortunately, individuals waiting to receive their benefits are likely to struggle financially until they receive a decision back for their claim.