Retired Early? Social Security Disability Eligibility

Many early retirees are able to collect SSDI if they can no longer work.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Many people who retire early because of health problems in their 50s and early 60s may be eligible for the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. You can receive SSDI benefits even if you already get a company retirement benefit, long-term disability payments, or worker's compensation benefits. But you can't draw retirement benefits from Social Security and SSDI at the same time (learn more here).

Who Qualifies for Disability After Early Retirement?

You have a reasonable chance of approval for disability benefits if your health problems contributed to your decision to retire early. If you had trouble working full time because of a serious medical condition, the Social Security Administration (SSA) could find that you are disabled and eligible for benefits.

When you apply, the SSA will require that you:

  • are working at levels below the SGA (substantial gainful activity) level
  • have disabling health problems that have lasted 12 months, and
  • are still insured for the SSDI disability program (more on this below).

Even if your health problems started or worsened after retirement, you're allowed to apply for SSDI benefits up until your full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, depending on the year you were born.

When Are You Insured for the SSDI Program?

Only workers who have paid Social Security taxes on their wages or self-employment income over a number of years are eligible for benefits from the SSDI program. Older workers (60 and older) who have accumulated 40 quarters of work credits (representing a full 10 years of work) are "fully insured" for Social Security retirement or disability benefits. But 50-year-olds need only have 7 years of work credits to be insured for disability benefits.

However, you have to be currently insured as well. Social Security's rule is that you must have worked at least 5 of the last 10 years to stay insured. The SSA calls your "date last insured" your "DLI." If you worked your whole life but then only worked 4 of the last 10 years, because you quit or took early retirement 6 years ago, you're no longer insured for SSDI.

You need to apply for disability benefits before your DLI, or, if you apply later, you at least need to have evidence that your disability existed before your DLI (more on this below).

You can contact the SSA office and ask if you are insured for SSDI and when your DLI expires.

Can You Get SSDI Benefits If You Become Disabled After Retirement?

Yes, as long as you are under full retirement age and your date last insured hasn't passed, you can get SSDI benefits long after you retire. Let's continue the example from above, where you have a DLI of December 31, 2023.

Learn more about the work credits required for SSDI.

Can You File a Claim After Your DLI?

You don't have to apply for SSDI benefits before your DLI; you just have to become disabled before your DLI. If your disability started well before you apply, it may be harder to prove, but not at all impossible.

If your DLI happened well before you file your claim, you can take the following steps to help prove your disability:

  • Ask your doctor to address in your medical records what your medical impairments were, including your functional limitations, before your DLI.
  • If you didn't see a doctor or get a diagnosis before your DLI, ask your doctor to "infer" how long your physical or mental problems likely affected your ability to function based on your history and current findings.
  • Tell the SSA about your limitations during the period before your DLI expired.
  • Use statements from family, friends, and others in the community about your problems and how they affected you before your DLI to support your claim.
  • Consider hiring a disability lawyer, who will be familiar with the difficulties of filing a claim for a disability that began in the past.

Should I Just Wait for Retirement Benefits?

    Even if you're close to age 62, it can still be worthwhile to apply for SSDI. Here's why:

    • You won't get a lower retirement benefit for collecting Social Security at age 62. (Social Security reduces retirement benefits by a small amount for each month before full retirement age that someone collects early retirement benefits. The reduction can add up to 30% for someone who claims benefits five years early.)
    • The SSA will pay SSDI benefits up to 12 months before your application date (called "back pay," or "retroactive payments"), if you were disabled that far back.
    • If the SSA finds you disabled, Social Security won't penalize you by lowering your retirement benefit because you retired early. (The "disability freeze" limits the effect of zero earnings years.) You will get a larger disability benefit before your full retirement age, and your full retirement benefit at full retirement age.
    • You'll get early entitlement to Medicare after 24 months of SSDI payments.

    Iff you're still wondering what to do, learn more about retiring early vs. applying for disability benefits.

    Updated April 11, 2024

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