Neighbors Helping Neighbors with Social Security Issues

By Tom Margenau

June 21, 2017 7 min read

Q: I have a young 30-something neighbor who stopped working a few years ago to raise a family. She told me that she got a letter from the government telling her that if she doesn't return to work soon, she will lose all the Social Security credits she earned while she was working. Because I am getting Social Security, she thinks I am an expert on such matters. But I haven't a clue what to tell her. Can you help?

A: I'm not really sure what kind of "letter from the government" your neighbor is talking about. But I can tell you that no one loses Social Security credits. They are good for life.

Here is my educated guess as to what happened. I'll bet she requested and then received an earnings and benefit statement from the Social Security Administration. That statement gives estimates of future Social Security benefits. And somewhere in that statement, it might have said she will lose her potential eligibility for Social Security disability benefits if she doesn't start working again soon.

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you need to have recent work credits on your Social Security account. Usually, you need to have worked and earned 20 credits in the 10-year period prior to becoming disabled.

And just so everyone understands: You get one credit for each $1,300 earned. But no one can earn more than four credits each year. In other words, once you make $5,200, you've earned all the Social Security credits you can get for the year.

You said your friend stopped working several years ago, so at some point in the not-too-distant future she will no longer meet that "20 credits in the last 10 year" rule and will lose, at least temporarily, her eligibility for Social Security disability benefits. Once she returns to work, she will eventually get that coverage back.

And by the way, the rules are different for Social Security retirement benefits. The law says you need 40 credits to qualify for such benefits. And those credits can be earned anytime during your life.

Q: I have some very nice neighbors who are having a hard time making ends meet. They are husband and wife, both of whom have what I assume is a mild form of Down syndrome. I will call them Paul and Mary. I think Paul is in his late 60s and Mary is in her early 60s. As far as I know, they both worked much of their adult lives. She is on Social Security. I'm not sure if it is retirement or disability. He is still working. He does minor clerical work for the federal government. I've been told he's been doing the same job for about 33 years and that he is a GS-3. (I'm not sure what that means!) They are such a sweet couple. Is there any kind of disability that he can get from Social Security to help them out? How about SSI?

A: I'm sorry, but Paul won't be eligible for Social Security disability benefits for several reasons. The first is because he doesn't meet the legal definition of disability for Social Security purposes. You do not qualify for such benefits just because you have a disability. Instead, you are eligible if you have a disabling condition that keeps you from working. Because Paul is working, he is not legally disabled.

Even if he wasn't working, the fact that he is over age 66 means he can't get disability benefits. Once you reach that age milestone, you can only get retirement benefits.

But that brings up another possibility. Paul might be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits IF he has been paying Social Security taxes. You said he's worked for the feds for about 33 years. Anyone hired by the federal government after Jan. 1, 1984 has been covered by Social Security. If he was hired before that date, he is probably paying into the Civil Service Retirement System, not Social Security.

If he is covered by Social Security, he could sign up for retirement benefits tomorrow. Once you are over age 66, you can get Social Security checks even if you are working full time. But if he is a CSRS employee, he won't be able to sign up for his federal pension until he retires.

You asked if they can get SSI. The answer is no. Supplemental Security Income is a federal welfare program that pays a small monthly stipend to the elderly poor (and to indigent disabled people). As a general rule, if an older couple already has income over about $1,100 per month, they won't qualify. I'm not sure what Mary's Social Security check is. But as a GS-3 (GS is the pay scale for federal employees), Paul is probably making about $24,000 per year. So that is well above the SSI income threshold.

Q: I have a 62-year-old neighbor who just signed up for his Social Security. He tried to get disability benefits, but was turned down. Yet he gets VA disability. You would think that if one branch of the federal government says he's disabled, that should be good enough for another branch!

A: Well, you might think that. But you'd be wrong. And that's because the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration run entirely different disability programs with entirely different sets of rules.

For example, the VA awards benefits based on degrees of disability. And you get those benefits whether you can work or not. For example, your neighbor might be getting a 10 percent VA disability. Or maybe a 50 percent disability.

But for SSA, it's all or nothing. A person must be 100 percent disabled to get Social Security disability benefits. And as I explained in the answer to the question above, the inability to work is the key to getting Social Security disability. The law says you must be unable to do any kind of work, and you must be expected to be out of work for at least a year, to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

If that answer doesn't satisfy your neighbor, he can always appeal his case to SSA. He has 60 days from the date his disability claim was denied to ask for a review.

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

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