Social Security disability applicants who are 49, 54, or 59 may be able to get bumped up into the next age group and more easily get disability benefits if they have certain limitations, a lack of education, or a lack of job history.
Here's how this works. Social Security's Medical-Vocational Grid Rules allow some older, physically limited claimants to qualify for disability benefits based on a combination of their age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (RFC). The grid rules are split up by age group: 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, and 60 and over. The older you are, the more likely you are to get disability. For example, the grid rules dictate that an individual aged 55 or over with a high school diploma and a job history of unskilled work should automatically be found disabled if he or she can perform only sit-down work. By contrast, a 50-year-old who could do only sedentary (sit-down) work would be found disabled based on the grids only if he or she lacks a high school education.
In general, those who are less educated and less skilled will be more likely to receive approval based on the grid rules. (But even if the grid rules don't call for certain applicants to be found disabled, they can still be found eligible if they're unable to perform sedentary work.)
It's not uncommon for disability applicants to be within a few weeks or months of an age category in the grids. In these cases, Social Security regulations allow disability judges to decide to bump the claimant into the next age category if the applicant has "additional vocational adversities" (defined below). In other words, judges are instructed not to apply the age categories "mechanically," but to determine if additional factors justify placing an applicant into a higher age category.
Social Security's rules outline a two-part test for figuring out when a judge has a borderline age situation. If the answer to both of the following questions is yes, then the judge should consider the applicant's additional vocational adversities.
The fact that an individual falls has very little education could qualify as an additional vocational adversity. Let's look at an example of how this works. Based on the regular grid rules, a 55-year-old who did not graduate from high school, who has not worked at skilled jobs, and who can only perform "light work" is automatically disabled. But for a 54-year-old in that situation, the grid rules say that person is not disabled. However, if a person nearing his 55th birthday had much less than a high school education—for example, he stopped attending school at age 12—that would likely constitute an additional adversity. Thus a judge would have the discretion to place this applicant in the 55 and over age category and find him disabled. Disability judges are instructed to balance the level of an applicant's education against the length of time until he or she reaches the next age category.
Applicants with certain limitations in their RFC may be found to have additional vocational adversities in borderline age scenarios. Some examples include limitations that don't have to do with strength such as:
To qualify an applicant to be bumped into the next age category, the non-strength-related limitations don't need to "significantly erode the claimant's occupational base" on their own, meaning that the limitations don't have to be so severe that they rule out a large number of jobs at the applicant's RFC level (sedentary, light, medium, or heavy).
Work in an isolated industry, such as fishing or logging, usually constitutes an additional vocational adversity for applicants who can no longer continue to work in that field. These applicants are considered to have no job history (not even for unskilled work). For grid rules that would provide disability benefits for an individual with "unskilled work or no past relevant work," the fact that an applicant doesn't have any job history can be considered as an additional vocational adversity, since it puts the applicant in a worse position than having just unskilled work.
You shouldn't take for granted that Social Security will place you into a higher age category, even if you're only a month or two away. Disability judges must make specific findings regarding the presence of additional vocational adversities to bump you into the next age category, and the burden is on you (or your lawyer) to prove they exist. The rules in this area and complicated, and many unrepresented claimants don't know how to present this evidence—with predictable results.
Hiring a disability attorney to prove you should be bumped up to the next age level will give you the best chance to obtain benefits based on the grids in a borderline age situation. You may want to consult our Lawyer Directory to find a trusted disability attorney in your area who can hep you with this.