Social Security Disability and Retirement

Can you collect both social security retirement and disability?

Americans receiving social security disability often wonder how their social security disability benefits will impact their social security retirement benefits (and vise versa).  To answer this important question, it may be helpful to think of how the social security disability benefits program started and what problems it was designed to address.

Disability insurance was not a part of the original Social Security Act of 1935 which created the social security retirement system as we know it today.  Indeed, social security retirement and disability benefits are very separate concepts: the former being an entitlement for the elderly, and the latter being a benefit for those who cannot work due to physical or mental condition.  In considering the connection between these two social programs, we should consider the first step in providing disability benefits under the Social Security Act – the “disability freeze”. 

The Disability “Freeze”

The idea behind the “disability freeze” was a simple one: a worker’s social security retirement benefit could be eroded by a period of disability and consequent unemployment because the amount of social security retirement is based upon the amount of wage-based contributions.  A disabled person could have many years for which a “zero” (i.e., no wages and FICA taxes paid) is a part of the social security retirement benefit calculation, drastically reducing their social security retirement benefit.

A “disability freeze” provision was included in the 1952 Amendments to the Social Security Act in order to address this problem.  The “disability freeze” is designed to protect the worker’s social security retirement benefit by providing that the worker’s period of disability would not be counted in determining insured status under the retirement insurance program or in determining the worker’s average earnings for purposes of computing benefit amounts.  The “disability freeze” did not, however, provide for a monthly disability check. 

Social Security Disability Cash Benefits

Amendments to the Social Security Act in 1956 provided for the payment of cash benefits to disabled applicants between the ages of 50 and 64 who met special requirements to be insured for disability benefits, and for disabled adult children who had a disability that began before the age of 18 and were survivors or dependents of Social Security beneficiaries. This legislation also created a disability trust fund, separate from the old-age and survivors trust fund, as the source for benefits to be paid to disabled workers.  The amount of the monthly social security disability benefit is 100% of the full retirement age benefit.

Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Retirement

The disability freeze and the amount of the social security disability benefit (the same as the full retirement benefit) reflect the main purpose of social security disability insurance: to protect the social security retirement full benefit – not to supplement it.  

When a worker is receiving social security disability benefits and reaches full retirement age (66 years and 2 months for those born in 1955, gradually rising to 67 for those born in 1960) their monthly benefit automatically converts to social security retirement. Their social security disability insurance ceases.

It is, however, possible to receive both social security disability insurance benefits and social security retirement IF the social security disability benefit is the “early retirement” benefit available at age 62.  In this case, the social security disability benefit is reduced by the amount of the early retirement benefit.

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