Baby boomers (like me) aren't just getting old. Some of us are also getting frail. I'm 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, the Social Security Administration), in the past few years, I've had to deal with issues as minor as a bum knee and as severe as blood clots.
And judging from the many emails I get from other health-ravaged seniors, I'm not alone. Many folks pushing Social Security age, and some already getting Social Security retirement, want to know if they are eligible for Social Security disability benefits. I sure don't like giving wishy-washy advice, but I'm afraid the answer is "it depends." So let's spend the rest of this column discussing those variables that may or may not make you eligible.
But before I do that, I've got to explain two things. First, what is the advantage to getting disability benefits? In a nutshell, the answer is more money. I will get into this in more detail later in the column, but for now it's enough to know that a disability benefit (no matter what your age) pays the same rate as a full retirement benefit.
The second thing you need to know is how Social Security law defines "disability." Although there is a bit more to it than this, for today's column, it is enough for me to say that in order to be considered disabled, you must have a physical or mental impairment that is severe enough to keep you from working for at least 12 months. The inability to work is key. In other words, you don't get Social Security disability benefits because you have an impairment. You get benefits if that impairment keeps you from working. Further, the law says you must not only be unable to do your old job; you must also be unable to do any kind of work for which you are suited.
That's a fairly strict definition. You have to be pretty messed up to qualify for benefits. For example, earlier I said I've had blood clots and a bum knee. My faulty leg would never be considered a disabling condition for Social Security. And even my blood clots, which were rather severe, would not have qualified me for disability because they went away in a month or two. It didn't meet the 12-month duration requirement to get Social Security disability.
But if you are a senior citizen who does have a severe medical or mental impairment, here is what you need to know.
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 62 and you have an impairment that keeps you from working, then you should file for Social Security disability benefits.
If you are disabled and you are between age 62 and 66 and you haven't yet signed up for Social Security, then you should file for retirement and disability benefits at the same time. SSA will start your retirement payments right away. Then if your disability claim is eventually approved, they will switch you to the higher disability rate.
But what if you are between age 62 and 66 and are already getting Social Security retirement benefits — and then something happens to cause you to become disabled? 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 little or 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 1 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 normally equal to his 100 percent full age 66 benefit, must be reduced by about one-half of 1 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.
Those are the messages for senior citizens who are pushing retirement age and who have some kind of disabling condition and who are wondering if they are eligible for Social Security disability benefits.
But now let me address those many senior citizens who are already getting Social Security disability benefits. Some of them may even have been getting benefits for many years — starting way back in their 50s or even younger. But as they push "full retirement age" (currently age 66), they write to me and wonder if they will be able to get "real Social Security." I always tell them that disability benefits are "real" Social Security. They are just as real as retirement benefits. So they will never be switched from "unreal" Social Security to "real" Social Security.
But if they are getting Social Security disability and turn age 66, they will be automatically converted to the retirement program. The money amount stays the same because remember: a Social Security disability benefit pays the same rate as an age 66 retirement benefit. So the changeover will essentially be transparent to them. What happens is primarily an internal bookkeeping transaction for SSA. When they reach age 66, their benefits will start being funded from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and not from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.