Can I switch from early retirement to disability benefits if I found out I was actually disabled?

You can apply for disability retroactively after receiving early retirement.

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Question

I had to quit work when I was 60 because of profound hearing loss. Even after getting hearing aids, I couldn't hear all of a conversation at normal levels. As soon as I turned 62, I filed for early retirement benefits. I recently realized I probably could have gotten disability benefits after I quit working, instead of filing for early retirement. Can I file retroactively and get benefits, and would it make a difference in my retirement payments? I am now 66.

Answer

If you have an average hearing threshold of 90 db or greater in your better ear (in other words, profound deafness in both ears), Social Security will consider you disabled. (For more information, see our listing on getting disability for hearing loss.)

Yes, you can apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits retroactively, and if you are successful, your Social Security benefits will increase. If the SSA determines that your hearing loss met the disability requirements before you began to receive early retirement, you would be entitled to retroactive benefits equal to the difference between your early retirement payment and what you were entitled to for SSDI. More importantly, your ongoing retirement benefit would increase due to the fact that you should have been receiving disability benefits rather than early retirement benefits.

Also, if you can prove your disability started before you were eligible for early retirement, you will get the benefit of a “disability freeze.” A “disability freeze” automatically disregards any low earning or zero earning years on your record for the period that your disability prevented you from working. This is important because both SSDI and retirement benefits are calculated based on your earnings. Years with no or low earnings on your record would otherwise reduce your benefits without the “disability freeze.” However, you need to apply for disability before you are one year past your full retirement age.

But if the SSA decides that you did not become disabled until after you began to receive early retirement, you won't receive any retroactive payments; instead, your Social Security payments will simply convert to your SSDI benefit amount. Once you reach retirement age, your full retirement benefits will be reduced based on how many months you received early retirement (called the “reduction factor").

You may be worried your Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) expired if you didn't work much in recent years (you have to have worked five out of the last ten years). However, if you can prove your disability began before your date last insured occurred (the date your SSDI expired), you could still be eligible for disability benefits. Ask your audiologist or doctor when your hearing loss became profound in both ears, and that should be the onset date of your disability.

The fact that Social Security's impairment listing for hearing loss changed in August 2010 shouldn't affect your application, as the amended listing applies to all applications filed after that date, regardless of the onset date of disability.

You would be making a "closed" application for disability benefits, since you are now 66 and no longer eligible for disability benefits. (See our article on filing for a closed period of disability.) You would file for a past period of disability that ends the last day of the month before the month you turned 66.

For more information, see our article on early retirement versus disability benefits.

by: , Contributing Author

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