Q: I am 60 years old and have had to stop work because of various medical problems. I would like to apply for Social Security disability benefits. But my husband and I have a retirement nest egg worth about $250,000, so I guess we are not eligible. Do I just wait until I am 62 to sign up for retirement benefits?
A: I am constantly amazed by the number of people, yourself apparently included, who equate the Social Security disability program with welfare. It is not. You can be rich or poor and qualify for Social Security retirement. And you can be rich or poor and qualify for Social Security disability. If Bill Gates became disabled tomorrow, he could file for Social Security disability benefits. And so can you.
Maybe it would help if you think of the Social Security disability program as an early disability retirement benefit, which is what it really is.
Q: My 59-year-old wife recently became disabled. I called Social Security's 800 number to ask about getting her on SSI, but they said because of my income that she isn't eligible. (I work, so we have my salary and I also get a military retirement pension.) But my wife worked all her life. So why can't she get disability now?
A: I purposely put your question after the prior one to further help clear up confusion many people have about disability benefits — in this case, about two entirely separate government disability programs.
If you used the same terminology with Social Security's call center people as you did in your question to me, then I understand why you got the answer you did.
You said you asked about getting your wife "on SSI." SSI is short for Supplemental Security Income. That is a federal welfare program that pays a small monthly stipend to poor people who are 65 or older or who are disabled.
The Social Security Administration manages the SSI program for the federal government. And this leads to all kinds of confusion because so many people think that SSI is some kind of Social Security benefit. It is NOT.
Also, many other people think that SSI is the same thing as Social Security disability. Again, it is not. Supplemental Security Income is for poor people. To repeat, it makes monthly payments to low-income senior citizens and to poor people who have disabilities. Social Security is for anyone (rich or poor) who has worked and paid Social Security taxes. Social Security retirement is for folks 62 or older. Social Security disability goes to people under 65 who are unable to work because of a physical or mental impairment.
So you should call the Social Security people back and this time tell them that you want information that will help your wife file for Social Security disability, not SSI.
Q: I worked for 35 years. I had to quit about six years ago because of a painful back injury. I have been living off of my employer's disability payments for much of that time. I am about to turn 62. I called Social Security's 800 number to ask about my potential benefits. They told me it was too late to get disability. Is it really too late to get my disability? What about my retirement?
A: There is no disqualifying time period when it comes to applying for Social Security retirement benefits. So you certainly can do that now.
On the other hand, there is a law that says you must have worked and paid Social Security taxes in five out of the last 10 years to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
But that rule means you must have those five years of work in the 10-year period before you became disabled, not necessarily the 10-year period before you file a Social Security disability claim.
So here is what you should do. You should file for retirement benefits. But at the same time, you should file for Social Security disability benefits claiming your disability began six years ago (a point in time when you met the "five out of the last 10" rule).
They will begin to pay your retirement benefits immediately. Then they will process your disability claim. And assuming you have medical records going back six years and can prove you became disabled at that point, and further assuming your disability claim is approved, they would then switch you to the higher Social Security disability rate. (As a general rule, a disability benefit equals an age 66 full retirement rate.) And depending on circumstances I don't know about your case, they could possibly pay you retroactive disability benefits.
Q: I don't understand the so-called "waiting period" for Social Security disability benefits. Some people say it is five months. Others say it is six months. Also, why is there a waiting period in the first place?
A: The law says that Social Security disability benefits cannot be paid for the first five full calendar months that a person is disabled. For example, let's say that you became disabled on May 15, 2016 and that you filed for Social Security disability benefits shortly thereafter and your claim was approved. So June through October would be the first five full months of your disability, meaning the first disability check you would get would be for November.
I usually am pretty good at giving the rationale behind various Social Security laws and regulations. But the disability waiting period is one rule that has always left me a bit in the dark. The best explanation I've heard is that most people should qualify for other forms of assistance right after they become disabled, like worker's compensation payments or benefits through their employer's disability plan. So they don't really need Social Security disability benefits until five or six months down the road.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected]
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