How age can affect Social Security Disability claims

Social Security views age as a factor that limits work ability, so claimants over age 50 may be more likely to receive medical-vocational allowances.

People seeking Social Security Disability benefits in Warren may qualify by meeting the terms of a "Blue Book" listing or receiving a medical-vocational allowance. While people with especially severe conditions may qualify for SSD benefits through the Blue Book, many people receive allowances. Social Security awards these to people who are judged incapable of finding gainful employment based on their medical condition and other factors.

To determine whether a worker qualifies for an allowance, Social Security uses medical-vocational guidelines, or "grids," to assess a person's ability to work. A claimant's age often makes a significant difference in the final outcome of claims evaluated under these rules.

Using the grids

The grids provide guidelines for situations when Social Security must find a worker disabled. Each grid takes four factors into account: age, level of education, previous work experience and residual functional capacity. Residual functional capacity is a measure of the work a person can perform after his or her impairments and secondary symptoms are taken into account.

There are four grids, with each representing a different level of RFC, ranging from sedentary to heavy. A person's likelihood of receiving benefits is lower at higher levels of RFC, since Social Security presumes these people can also work at lower RFC levels, increasing their total job opportunities. Under the grid rules, people who are capable of heavy work, the highest level of RFC, cannot even be found disabled.

Age as a factor

Social Security presumes that younger workers are more capable of learning necessary job-related skills or pursuing further education, so a person's odds of receiving a medical-vocational allowance increase with age. For example, a worker who is older than 50 and can perform only sedentary work may be found disabled if he or she has the following profile:

  • Limited education, with no experience in skilled work
  • Limited education, with no transferrable skills
  • High school education that did not support entry into skilled work, with no experience in skilled work
  • High school education that did not qualify the worker for skilled work, with non-transferrable skills

In contrast, to be considered incapable of sedentary work, a worker between ages 45 and 49 would have to be illiterate and completely lacking experience in skilled work. A worker under than age of 45 could not be found disabled, regardless of his or her education and work experience.

Borderline age situations

Under these guidelines, a claimant's age at the time of application can make a significant difference in the final claim outcome. Fortunately, Social Security makes provisions for borderline age situations. If a claimant is within a few days or months of entering a new age category, and evaluation under that category would result in a more favorable decision, a claims examiner may use that age category instead.

To justify using a higher age category, a claims examiner may consider limitations in non-exertional abilities, education or work experience that the grids may not take into account. Social Security does not set limits on how small the gap between a claimant's age and the start of the next age category must be. However, for larger gaps, there must be greater justification for using a higher age category. If a gap is 12 months or longer, the use of a higher age category is unlikely.

Documenting the claim

Providing extensive information about work history, education and functional limitations is essential for people who may qualify for SSD benefits through medical-vocational allowances. Applicants may benefit from partnering with an attorney during the application process to ensure that the claim meets Social Security's strict evidentiary standards.

Keywords: Social Security, SSD, disability