Social Security Disability Rules after Age 50

Did you Know There is a “Senior Benefit”  When It Comes to Getting Social Security Disability Benefits?

We all are familiar with discounts and specials many movie theatres, stores and restaurants provide to “senior” patrons – usually those over 50 years of age.  My millennial son rolls his eyes every time he sees one.  But I tell him, there has to be some advantage to being old!

There is also a benefit to being older than 50 years old  when it comes to qualifying for social security disability. Under social security disability rules, age does matter!

Eligibility for Disability Benefits

The basic qualification rules for social security disability are the same regardless of age. To be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, an individual must have a disabling condition that prevents them from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA) for at least one year. The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines SGA as any work that earns more than a specific amount each month. For 2023, the SGA threshold is $1,310 per month for non-blind individuals and $2,190 per month for blind individuals.

This basic requirement applies whether you are age 25 of age 60: you must be unable to perform any type of work.

Residual Functional Capacity

The administrative law judge (ALJ) must determine what work-related activities the disability applicant can still perform despite their physical or mental disability. This requirement applies to young applicants and older applicants alike. In determining RFC, the ALJ must make their decision based upon medical evidence, not age.

So theoretically, an ALJ could give a healthy 60 year old man an RFC of “light” – which requires standing and walking most of the work day – even though he has done only sedentary work unless there is some medical evidence otherwise. That is, the ALJ cannot recognize that going from a desk job to “stand up” work might be hard for a 60 year old to do.

Your age – whether 30 or age 60 – will also not be a consideration if the your RFC permits you to return to prior work at step 4 of the sequential evaluation process. Here is a example:

A 60 year old has performed “light” work in the past 15 years. The ALJ finds his RFC to be for “light” duty work. The ALJ will find him capacity of returning to prior work at step 4 of the sequencial evaluation process. His age will ahve played no factor in the decision.

Age as a Vocational Factor

So where is this “senior benefit” I speak of? Age comes into place at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process. That is, age over 50 is a consideration in determining whether there is “other work” you could do. Age is a “vocational factor” in determining ability to work other work.

In evaluating age as a vocational factor, the social security sets out three age classifications:

  • Younger person: under age 50
  • Person closely approaching advanced age: age 50-54
  • Person of advanced age: age 55 or older

Disability at 50: How the Age Bracket of 50-54 is Assessed

So where is this “senior benefit” I speak of? Age comes into place at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process. That is, age over 50 is a consideration in determining whether there is “other work” you could do. Your age – whether 30 or age 60 – will not be a consideration if the your RFC permits you to return to prior work at step 4 of the sequential evaluation process.

For disability claimants over 50 years of age, the social security regulations recognize that as we age it gets harder to adjust to different kinds of work.

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The Social Security Administration has special rules for claimants over 50. Attorney Denman knows these rules to help win your disability case. Further, there is a better chance for an attorney to obtain an “on the record” decision when a claimant is over 50 and can no longer do the sort of work he or she has done in the past.

If you are over 50 years old and have an RFC limited to unskilled sedentary work, Social Security will presume that you are unable to transition to other work due to your age. This can make a huge difference for your claim. A person limited to unskilled sedentary work may lose his or her disability claim at age 48, but will win it at age 50.

Disability at 55: how the Age Bracket of 55 and above is assessed

After the age of 55, the vocational rules are even more in the claimant’s favor. A claimant limited to unskilled light exertional work is presumed to be unable to transition to other work.

Age as a Practical Consideration

The reality is that ALJs are simply more inclined to pay cases for claimants over the age of 50. There is a unspoken recognition that someone who has worked most their adult life is credible when they now claim they can no longer work. There is also a subtle understanding that the approval of disability benefits for an older person will “cost” the government a lot less than in the case of a 25 year old.

So lets return to the example, in the case I cite above where a 60 year old “desk jockey” is found able to do stand up work. The ALJ cannot approve the case on the basis that the claimant has “worked hard all of their life”. She cannot pay the case by saying “well he is close th social security disability retirement age anyway”. Rather she would look very carefully in the medical records for medical evidence to support a finding that the claimant could not in fact do “light” duty work.

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