What Is the Disability Freeze?

The disability freeze can protect your Social Security disability or retirement benefits despite years of little or no earnings.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you can't work due to disability, you've likely suffered gaps in your employment history or times when you made less money due to your medical condition. If you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI, as opposed to SSI), having years where you make little or no income can reduce your disability or retirement benefits, or even make you ineligible for benefits.

To decrease the impact of these low earnings years, the Social Security Administration (SSA) created the "disability freeze." A disability freeze preserves your eligibility for future retirement and disability benefits and can even increase your benefit amount.

How Does a Disability Freeze Work?

When Social Security implements a disability freeze, your work years and earnings history affected by your disability can't adversely affect your claim. A disability freeze can:

A disability freeze covers a period of time when you couldn't work or had low wages because of your disability (called a "period of disability"). "Freezing" that period takes those years out of the Social Security eligibility and benefit calculations.

Who Qualifies for a Disability Freeze?

To qualify for a disability freeze, you must:

How Can a Disability Freeze Protect My Eligibility?

Because SSDI is essentially insurance, to be eligible for benefits, you must have had "insured status" when you became disabled or at a later date. (20 C.F.R. § 404.131.) And to be insured, you must have:

  • worked and paid Social Security taxes for long enough, and
  • worked recently enough.

The older you are, the longer you must have worked to be covered by SSDI, up to a maximum requirement of 10 years (40 quarters). You must also have worked recently enough (if you're 31 or older, that's 5 of the last 10 years, or 20 of the last 40 quarters). You must meet both requirements to be "insured" for SSDI.

That's where a disability freeze can help. If you stopped working more than five years ago, your SSDI coverage would have run out by now, and you'd be ineligible for disability benefits—unless you qualify for a disability freeze. Your periods of disability won't count against your eligibility because Social Security freezes those quarters. (20 C.F.R. § 404.130(f).)

Can I Still Get a Disability Freeze if My Impairment Began a Few Years Ago?

As long as you can prove that you became disabled while you were still insured for SSDI (before your date last insured), even if it was several years ago, you're still eligible for a disability freeze.

How Can a Disability Freeze Increase My Benefit Amount?

Social Security bases your benefit amount on how much you've earned from the year you turned 22 until the day you became disabled (your disability onset date). Social Security adds up your highest earnings (indexed to better reflect current wage levels), not counting between one and five years of your lowest earning years, depending on how long you've been working.

Your indexed earnings total is then divided by the number of months those wages cover. So, if Social Security used 20 years of wages to find your average indexed monthly earnings (AIME), you'd divide the total earnings for the 20 years by 240 months (the number of months in 20 years). That gives you your AIME. The higher your AIME, the more your monthly benefit amount will be (up to the maximum benefit amount).

Your SSDI benefit is a percentage of your AIME, so the higher your monthly average wages are, the more your disability payments will be. Learn more about the percentage of AIME you can get in SSDI benefits.

Can I Get a Disability Freeze if I'm on SSI?

A disability freeze is available only to SSDI recipients because it's directly related to a person's earnings record. You can't get a disability freeze for SSI disability because SSI payments are not based on your work or earnings record.

Can I Get a Disability Freeze Even if I Don't Get Disability Payments?

Some people who aren't receiving monthly disability payments can still qualify for a disability freeze. For instance, if Social Security determines that you're "statutorily blind," you can get a disability freeze—even if you earn more than the SGA limit and so don't qualify for SSDI benefits. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1582.)

Others who can sometimes receive a disability freeze include:

  • people whose eligibility for a disability freeze is based on earnings as a railroad worker or as military personnel (because these earnings don't count for Social Security purposes), and
  • incarcerated individuals under certain conditions (see SSR 83-21).

Should I Apply for SSDI and a Disability Freeze or Take Early Retirement?

If you're approaching the age of 62 and you're disabled, you might be considering taking early retirement instead of applying for SSDI. But if you're approved for SSDI (which is easier for older workers), you can apply for a disability freeze.

If you receive a disability freeze and later apply for disability or retirement benefits, Social Security will take your period of disability into account when calculating your benefit amounts. Getting a disability freeze will limit the effects of low-earning years or years you didn't work because of your impairment, which can result in higher retirement benefits and larger disability payments for you and your family. And delaying taking early retirement benefits can also increase your benefits, because Social Security reduces your benefits by a certain percentage for each month you collect retirement benefits before you reach full retirement age.

Learn more about the relationship between early retirement and Social Security disability benefits.

Updated October 27, 2023

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