February 9, 2017

Social Security and Disability Insurance

The following is a guest post

Social Security might be seared into your mind as an iconic symbol of American retirement. That’s for good reason, with 43 million people counted in 2015 as receiving $56 billion in retirement benefits. But people over 50 should also realize there’s another side to Social Security.

It’s a major support program for people whose disabilities leave them unable to work. Another 11 million workers with disabilities and their dependents collect more than $11 billion in Social Security Disability benefits. And the Social Security Administration (SSA) predicts that your odds of needing the program will increase as you age. Among people who are 20 years old today, the SSA estimates more than a quarter of them will develop disabilities before age 67.

Applying for Social Security Disability (SSD) is a complex process, but it’s another element you might need to understand as part of your retirement planning.

Understanding Social Security Disability

First, it’s important to know the basic criteria of qualifying for Social Security Disability. It’s for people whose disabilities are expected to prevent them from working for at least a year, or lead to death. So you have to meet a strict definition of disability outlined in federal law. The program is also reserved for you if you worked and paid into the Social Security trust fund. This is part of the insurance that your paycheck deductions covered.

The program has a test that considers how recently you worked, how long you worked and how old you were when you experienced a disability. The SSA advises applying as soon as you learn you have a disability that will block you from working.

It can take several months to win benefits. Even then, most applicants are denied on the first try and must begin working their way through a four-level appeals process. The wait for that can stretch more than a year as the SSA grapples with a massive backlog of cases. Recently, applicants waiting for appeals hearings have numbered more than 1 million people.

The average monthly SSD benefit in 2015 was $1,166 per month. That might sound like a relatively small amount to win if you’re going through such an elaborate process. All the complexity means it’s important to get the details of an application right.

Avoiding Disability Application Complications

Several common missteps could hinder your efforts to secure SSD benefits. Those include collecting unemployment at the same time, because unemployment suggests you are ready and able to work but just needing to find a job.The list also includes not quitting your job, failing to follow up on your claim, missing the deadline to appeal a benefits denial, skipping preparation for an appeals hearing, deviating from your doctor’s prescriptions, failing to raise mental health conditions that might qualify as disabilities and failing to see a doctor in the first place.

You also might shy away from applying because you think you can’t afford a lawyer to help you through the process. But SSD lawyers work differently than a lot of other lawyers, only collecting a fee if they win the case.Even then, their fee comes of out benefits awarded to cover the period after you experienced a qualifying disability and before you won your claim to win benefits. Essentially, it comes out of back pay, and most of the time you don’t pay anything to the attorney up front.

Applying for SSD When You’re Over 50

If you’re over 50, there is some good news. The rules get just a little more lenient as you approach retirement age. The SSA explains it this way: “If you are closely approaching advanced age (age 50-54), we will consider that your age along with a severe impairment and limited work experience may seriously affect your ability to adjust to other work.” 

In other words, as you get older the SSA concedes you might be less likely to adapt to working in a different kind of job from what you had before. That concession doesn’t mean the process is easy. It’s still complicated and you might benefit from working with a representative to help you through the process. However your retirement years unfold, just remember when you’re thinking about retirement and Social Security that SSD is another avenue of support that can help.

BIO: Edward Ober, Managing Partner for the Ober & Pekas law firm in Phoenix, Ariz., has been a leading Social Security Disability lawyer since 1985. 

This article was provided to Satisfying Retirement for informational purposes only and with no compensation. There is no endorsement, either real or implied, by the inclusion of the biographical information.


  1. It took my wife 3 appeals and 2 years before she was awarded disability for depression.

    1. My understanding it is a tough sell. Thanks for sharing a real life story.

  2. We did hire a lawyer to help us through the process. He only took a small bite of the back pay. He was famliar with the judge and said the judge always approached the claims as if we were taking money out of her pocket. The first 2 appeals, the judge called the same doctor as the SME as the one who did the initial evaluation. The 3D time was a different doctor who actually read the medical records. When asked by the judge, the doctor emmediately said, uneqivicably, the disability existed. Case closed.