Applying for Disability at Age 55-59: What Social Security's Medical-Vocational Grids Say

Disability applicants over the age of 55 have an easier time getting Social Security benefits thanks to the grid rules.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Getting disability benefits when you're older than 55 can be easier than when you're younger, thanks to a special set of rules called the medical-vocational grid. The grid rules are aimed at people closer to retirement age who can't do their past work. The rules let the Social Security Administration (SSA) consider factors that can make it difficult for these people to switch jobs— factors like whether they have any skills that transfer to other work.

While most people younger than 50 need to show that they can't perform the easiest sit-down jobs before the SSA can find them disabled, people over the age of 50 might get disability even if they can do a sit-down job. And if you're between the ages of 55 and 59 and can do a half-standing, half-sitting job, you could still qualify for disability benefits.

What Are the Social Security Disability Rules After Age 55?

Social Security categorizes disability applicants between the ages of 55 and 59 as "advanced age." Within this category, the grid is divided into tables based on exertional levels. Exertional levels describe the most weight you can carry and the longest you can be on your feet during a work day.

Your exertional level is an important part of your residual functional capacity (RFC). The SSA recognizes five exertional levels:

  • Sedentary work requires you to lift up to 10 pounds and stand or walk for 2 hours total.
  • Light work requires you to lift up to 20 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.
  • Medium work requires you to lift up to 50 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.
  • Heavy work requires you to lift up to 100 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.
  • Very heavy work requires you to lift more than 100 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.

You won't be able to get disability under the grid rules if you can physically perform heavy or very heavy work, and if you can perform medium work, you can only qualify if you have a limited education and have never worked before.

But if you can do light or sedentary work, the SSA will use the grid rules to see if they "direct a finding of disability" based on additional factors, such as your level of education.

Using the Grid Rules Over 55

Below are the grid rules for people between the ages of 55 and 59. To use the grids, first find the table for the exertional level in your RFC. Next, find the rows that best describe your education level and previous work experience. (Past relevant work means any jobs you've done for 30 days or more over the past five years.)

The third column shows the decision the SSA will make based on those two factors.

RFC for SEDENTARY WORK

Education

Previous Work Experience

Decision

11th grade education or lower

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Disabled

11th grade education or lower

Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills

Disabled

11th grade education or lower

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills

Disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

Recent education or training for skilled work

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Not disabled

Recent education or training for skilled work

Skilled or semiskilled work with or without transferable skills

Not disabled

RFC for LIGHT WORK

Education

Previous Work Experience

Decision

11th grade education or lower

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Disabled

11th grade education or lower

Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills

Disabled

11th grade education or lower

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills

Disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

Recent education or training for skilled work

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Not disabled

Recent education or training for skilled work

Skilled or semiskilled work with or without transferable skills

Not disabled

RFC for MEDIUM WORK

Education

Previous Work Experience

Decision

11th grade education or lower

No past relevant work

Disabled

11th grade education or lower

Unskilled work

Not disabled

11th grade education or lower

Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills

Not disabled

11th grade education or lower

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Unskilled work or no past relevant work

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills

Not disabled

High school graduate or higher

Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills

Not disabled

Recent education or training for skilled work

Skilled or semiskilled work with or without transferable skills

Not disabled

Examples of Using the 55-59 Grid Rules

Here are some examples of when a person in the advanced age category can be approved based on the grids.

  • Selma is a 57-year-old woman who applied for disability based on her diabetes, which made it hard for her to stand for longer than one hour during the work day. She had a high school education but hadn't worked for 25 years. The SSA determined that Selma had the RFC to perform sedentary work only. The grids directed a finding of disabled and Selma's application for benefits was approved.
  • Lars is a 56-year-old man who applied for disability because of moderate emphysema. He had a 10th-grade education and had worked his whole life as a commercial fisherman. The SSA found that Lars shouldn't lift more than 20 pounds due to his emphysema and gave him an RFC for light work. Because Lars didn't have any transferable skills from his job as a fisherman, he was approved under the grids.

Here are some examples of when a person over 55 would be found not disabled:

  • Owen is a 55-year-old man who filed for disability due to arthritis in both knees. He had a college education, and his past work was as a hotel manager. The SSA determined that Owen had an RFC for sedentary work, but that he had transferable skills including the ability to manage groups and interact with customers. Given these factors, the grids directed a finding of not disabled.
  • Tina is a 58-year-old woman who filed for disability based on hepatitis C. Tina had a GED and some college credits. The SSA determined that Tina's hepatitis C symptoms limited her to medium work. Because of her education level and medium RFC, Tina was denied under the grids.

What to Do When the Grids Say "Not Disabled"

Even if the grids don't direct a finding of disabled, you can still get benefits if you can show your limitations actually prevent you from doing the kind of work the SSA says you can do. Because the grid rules only address exertional levels, you can qualify for benefits if you have a combination of exertional and non-exertional limitations that prevent you from working. One type of non-exertional limitation is mental limitations that keep you from using any transferable skills you might have learned.

Another common way to win is to prove you can't even do a sit-down job. For instance, if you have carpal tunnel syndrome but the SSA denied you benefits because you had a sedentary RFC, a college education, and transferable job skills, you could appeal and show that your inability to use your hands and fingers don't allow you to do any sedentary jobs.

Finally, if you are 59, check out the grid rules for those over 60. The SSA sometimes uses the grid rules for the next oldest age category if you would qualify for disability under those rules and have what the agency calls "additional vocational adversities." For more information, see our article on getting disability when you're almost 50, 55, or 60.

Contact an Attorney for Help If You're Older Than 55

Many claimants in the 55-59 age group have better odds of winning their disability case using the grids. But the nuances of applying the grids can be tricky, especially for highly skilled applicants or people with complicated RFCs. Consider contacting an experienced disability attorney to help you navigate the grid rules and handle communication with Social Security.

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