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Does being older make it easier to obtain social security disability benefits?

Elder Care

Have you ever wondered why it is easier for people who are older to get social security disability benefits than younger individuals with the same medical condition? This is because Social Security Administration regulations consider an individual’s age, education and experience when determining disability.

In order to be entitled to social security disability benefits, you have to meet the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) definition of “disability”.  There is a five-step process or analysis that the SSA uses to evaluate each claim and determine if you are disabled.  In general, to meet the definition of disability you must be unable to engage in the substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

SSA 5-step process and analysis

Step 1:

SSA looks at whether or not you are working. If you are working you must not be engaging in substantial gainful activity. In the year 2020, substantial gainful activity is defined as earning $1,260 a month.  In the year 2021, substantial gainful activity is defined as earnings of $1310 a month. If you have no earnings or are earning under that amount then you move on to step two.

Step 2:

You must show that your impairment or impairments are severe. To be severe, your impairment(s) must have more than a minimal impact on your ability to engage in basic work activity.

Step 3:

It is determined whether your condition meets the criteria of a listing. Social Security created a list of conditions referred to as the “listings”.  If you meet the criteria of a listed condition; you will be considered disabled automatically.

Step 4:

Your residual functional capacity is determined. This is an evaluation of your level of disability as measured by your maximum functional ability to engage in basic work activity considering your impairments.   The first question that must be answered is whether you are able to do any of your past relevant work considering your residual functional capacity. If you are not deemed able to return to your past relevant work, then you move on to step five.

Step 5:

The last and final step, is determined whether you can return to any other work within your residual functional capacity, considering your age, education and work experience.  If there are no other jobs that you can do within your residual functional capacity, then you will be considered disabled.

Commonly, individuals with severe physical impairments are limited to either residual functional capacities of sedentary or light level work.  Sedentary work requires the ability to lift no more than 10 pounds at a time occasionally, and the lifting of light objects. Although sedentary jobs involve primarily sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is necessary to carry out job duties. An individual must be able to occasionally stand and walk up to 2 hours of an 8-hour workday, and be able to sit about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. Of course, all individuals must be able to engage in basic work activities such as seeing, manipulating objects, understanding, remembering and carrying out simple instructions.

Light level work is defined as lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of up to 10 pounds. Jobs in this category require walking and standing up to 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. Remember, the residual functional capacity is one’s maximum sustained work capability.

At step 5 in the process, the Administrative Law Judge, (“ALJ”), must determine if the individual is able to make an adjustment to other work. It has already been determined at step 4 that the individual cannot perform any on his or her past work.    In cases where an individual is 50 years of age or older, the ALJ uses what is referred to as the “grid” rules to determine if an individual is disabled or whether the person can return to some other work. The grid rules (or medical-vocational guidelines) are found in 20 CFR part 404 subpart P appendix 2.

Age is divided into categories.  An individual is considered a younger person if he or she is under age 50. Individuals between ages 50 and 54 are considered persons closely approaching advanced age. Individuals 55 or older are considered persons of advanced age. Individuals age 60 or older are considered closely approaching retirement age. SSA considers advancing age to be an increasingly limiting factor in a person’s ability to make an adjustment to other work.

The grid rules determine disability based on the existence of a limited number of unskilled occupations in the national economy and an individuals’ capacity to make a work adjustment to such occupations.  The assumption is that the older one gets and the more disabled they are, the less likely that they will be able to adjust to such other work. For example, for individuals who are 50 to 54 and who are limited to a sedentary residual functional capacity, the grid rules would provide that they be deemed “disabled”.   (This assumes that the individual does not have any skills or education providing for direct entry into skilled work.)

However, if an individual is between the ages of 50 to 54 and capable of doing light level work, they likely would not be considered disabled. Moreover, if an individual is 55 years old or older then the capability to do light level work would more likely result in a finding of disability under the grids.  Please note that there are other factors besides age, such as education and work experience, that are considered in the determination of disability under the grids. These examples are simplified to demonstrate how age plays a significant role in easing the way for a finding of disability in social security disability cases.

Depending on an individual’s past work experience, he or she may be able to use his or her gained skills to adjust to another occupation. These is referred to as transferable skills. The presumption is that the older that you are, the less likely you will be able to transfer your skills and adjust to a new occupation.

Thus, for individuals over 55 limited to sedentary work, and for ages 60 to 64 limited to light level work, any transferable skills need to be readily transferable to a significant range of skilled work within an individual’s residual functional capacity, and there must be very little if any vocational adjustment required in terms of tools, work processes, work settings or the industry.  In other words, the existence of transferrable skills would need to open the doors to a significant number of jobs as compared to the unskilled jobs that exist pursuant to the grid rules, and there must be very little to no change with respect to you doing this new work.

If you are older individual thinking of applying for social security disability, this is likely the right choice for you, since age plays a significant factor in obtaining benefits.  At the LaBovick Law Group, we provide free consultations where we will review the facts of your case to determine if this is the right program for you.

Call us today at (561) 623-3681 for your free evaluation.

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