Applying for Disability When You're Under Age 50

It's difficult, but not impossible, to get Social Security disability when you're in your forties, thirties, or even twenties.

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If you are under the age of 50 when you apply for disability, it will be much harder for you to win your claim than for an older person. However, there are some tactics you can use to increase your chances of being approved.

First, you should understand the two main ways of getting approved for benefits.

Meeting a Medical Listing

One of the initial determinations the Social Security Administration (SSA) will make is whether your impairment meets the requirements of one of the medical conditions set forth in its “listing of impairments” (listings.) The listings are a group of illnesses that the SSA will approve automatically for disability as long as the requirements of the listing are fully met.

If you meet the requirements of a listing (for instance, you have esophageal carcinoma or ALS), it doesn't matter what age you are -- you can get disability benefits. However, winning a claim based on the listing can be difficult because of the detailed requirements needed to meet the listings. For more information, see our section on using the Social Security listings.

Similar to meeting a listing is having a medical condition that's listed on the "Compassionate Allowances List." Some medical conditions are so severe that the SSA will award disability immediately, regardless of age. This is called a compassionate allowance.

Falling Under the Grids

The "grids" are a series of tables the SSA uses to determine if a claimant is disabled, assuming the claimant doesn't meet a listing. The factors the SSA considers when using the grids are the claimant’s age, education level, skill level of past work, and his or her residual functional capacity or RFC (see our article on RFCs). For a person under the age of 50, the grids are generally unhelpful because they almost always direct a finding of “not disabled.”

However, there is one scenario under which the grid rules will find a person younger than 50 years old disabled. This scenario is where a claimant is between the ages of 45 and 49, is only able to sit-down work, is either illiterate or unable to communicate in English, and hasn't worked in the last 15 years or has only done unskilled work. For example, in one case, a 46-year-old man worked as a laborer picking tomatoes. The work was unskilled. Additionally, the man had never learned to read or write. He filed for disability based on a heart condition and diabetes, but didn't meet a listing. His RFC was for sedentary work. Accordingly, the grid rules directed a finding of disabled. For more information, see our article on the grid rules.

Challenging the Grid Finding of "Not Disabled"

For most individuals who are 18-49, the grids will direct a finding of "not disabled." But this isn't the final conclusion. A grid finding is a presumption that you can challenge and beat if you (or your lawyer) argues your case well. Here are some ways to show that a grid finding of "not disabled" shouldn't apply to you.

Non-Exertional Impairments

The SSA decides what level of work you can do (your RFC) by looking at your exertional limitations; that is, limitations that affect your ability to do strength-related work activities such as the ability to:

  • lift
  • carry
  • push
  • pull
  • stand
  • walk, or
  • sit.

But if non-exertional limitations are a significant part of why you're filing for disability benefits, the RFC levels and grids don't apply in the same way. Non-exertional impairments are those that impact your ability to do non-strength-related physical activities or mental activities, such as using your fingers, bending, stooping, following directions, or getting along with others. If you have a non-exertional impairment that relates to your mental function, the SSA will prepare a mental RFC.

The SSA is required to consider how the combined effects of your non-exertional impairments impact your ability to do work activities. Frequently, a claimant has the ability to perform the physical requirements of a job but is still unable to perform necessary tasks such as following directions, interacting with others, using hands and fingers, or bending and stooping. Severe limitations in these areas can result in an approval regardless of the claimant's RFC. For more information, see our article on how non-exertional impairments combine with exertional impairments to create disability.

Less than Sedentary RFC

If you can't do sedentary work (a job that requires sitting down most of the day, eight hours a day, five days a week), the SSA is likely to consider you disabled regardless of your age. (The grids don't include a less than sedentary RFC, but it basically means there is no work you can do.)

For example, you might be considered unable to do sedentary work if you have a condition that causes:

  • the need to change positions between sitting and standing frequently
  • the inability to stoop
  • frequently hospitalization or absenteeism, and/or
  • the inability to follow directions and complete simple tasks on time.

If you can prove you are unable to even do a sit-down job (Social Security calls this “sedentary” work), Social Security will usually approve your claim. For more information, see our article on how to win your claim based on an RFC of less than sedentary.

Combination of Impairments

If you have more than one medical condition that limits you, the SSA must consider the combined effect of them when preparing your RFC. If you have at least one severe impairment (one that has more than a minimal affect on your ability to work), the SSA must consider how any non-severe impairments you have further limit your ability to work. The combined impact of severe and non-severe impairments can push your RFC down a level or at least prevent you from doing a full range of work in your RFC. For more information, see our articles on using a combination of impairments and combining severe and non-severe impairments to win your disability claim.

Borderline Age

If you are a few months away from turning 50 and would be approved for benefits based on using the age category of 50-54, you can request that the SSA use the older age grid. The SSA will decide whether to do this on a case-by-case basis.

Getting an Attorney's Help

If you are in your twenties, thirties, or forties, you will have an uphill battle getting disability benefits, even when you are truly unable to work. Because of the difficulty younger claimants face getting approved, it's usually helpful to consult or hire an experienced disability attorney. To find an attorney in your area, visit our disability attorney locator.

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