Can I Get Disability Under the Social Security Grid Rules if I'm Nearing the Next Age Group?

Social Security will sometimes treat a disability claimant who is 49, 54, or 59 a year older so they can get benefits. Here's when that will happen.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

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:

  • limitations that are unrelated to physical strength
  • a lack of education, or
  • a lack of job history.

These factors are called "additional vocational adversities."

An Overview of Age Groups and the "Grid Rules"

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 group, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (RFC). The grid rules are split up by the following age groups:

  • 45-49
  • 50-54
  • 55-59, and
  • 60 and over.

The older you are, the more likely you are to get disability. For example, under the grid rules, Social Security has to find a person disabled if they have the following:

  • age of 55 or over
  • a job history of unskilled work, and
  • a limtation of sit-down ("sedentary") work.

By contrast, a 50-year-old who could do only sedentary (sit-down) work would be found disabled based on the grid rules only if he or she lacks a high school education.

In general, those who are less educated and less skilled are 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.)

What Are "Borderline Age Scenarios?"

It's not uncommon for disability applicants to be within a few weeks or months of an age category in the grid rules. For instance, many applicants are 54 when they apply for benefits, and by the time they get a disability hearing, they are almost 55. In these borderline age scenarios, Social Security regulations allow disability judges to decide to "bump" the applicant into the next age category if the applicant has additional vocational adversities (defined below).

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.

  1. Is the applicant within a few days or months of the next age bracket? It's not clear from Social Security policy how many months constitute "a few," but in practice it's rarely more than six. For instance, someone who is 54 years and 10 months would qualify as being close to the 55-59 age bracket.
  2. Would using the applicant's real age result in a finding of "not disabled," and would using the higher age category result a findng of "disabled"? If changing the age category would result in the applicant's being found disabled, the judge will consider whether the applicant has additional vocational adversities. If changing the age category wouldn't alter the result, the judge will simply use the applicant's real age.

What Are Additional Vocational Adversities?

Social Security's rules require judges not to apply the age categories "mechanically," but to determine if additional factors justify placing an applicant into a higher age category.

In Social Security jargon, these additional factors are called additional vocational adversities: special considerations related to a person's education, residual functional capacity (RFC), or work experience that warrant the use of a higher age category in borderline age situations. Generally, they describe aspects of the applicant's life that aren't fully laid out in the grid rules.

Here are some examples of when these factors can bump you into the next age group:


The fact that an individual has very little education can qualify as an additional vocational adversity. Let's look at an example of how this works. First, let's take 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." The grid rules say that this person is automatically disabled. But the grid rules say that a 54-year-old in that situation is not disabled.

However, if a person nearing their 55th birthday had much less than a high school education—for example, they stopped attending school at age 13—that would likely count as an additional adversity. A judge would have the discretion to place this applicant in the 55 and over age category and find them disabled. Social Security's rules instruct disability judges to balance the level of an applicant's education against the length of time until he or she reaches the next age category.

Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)

A disability judge can also find that applicants with certain limitations in their RFC have additional vocational adversities in borderline age scenarios.

Your RFC is based on limitations in your physical strength, such as the amount of time you can stand and walk and how many pounds you can lift. For example, an RFC of sedentary work means that you can't lift more than ten pounds or stand more than two hours a day. A sedentary RFC greatly reduces the number of jobs you can do.

But other, non-strength-related limitations can also prevent you from doing many jobs. Examples of limitations that don't have to do with strength include:

  • problems with bending, climbing, balancing, kneeling, crouching, or crawling
  • restrictions on stooping or overhead reaching
  • restrictions on use of the dominant hand
  • mild to moderate hearing or visual limitations, or
  • certain mental limitations, especially problems understanding detailed instructions, maintaining extended focus, or interacting socially.

A judge could bump you into the next age group if you have one or more of these non-strength-related limitations. 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 Experience

Having prior work in an isolated industry, such as fishing or logging, usually counts as 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). 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. So for grid rules that provide disability benefits for an individual with "unskilled work or no past relevant work," a judge could bump you into the next age group.

Contact a Disability Attorney to Prove Additional Adversities

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. It's not something that disability judge will often do on their own. You need to make the request, and then the judge has to find that you have specific additional vocational adversities that will bump you into the next age category. The burden is on you (or your representative) to prove the additional vocational adversities exist. The rules in this area and complicated, and many unrepresented applicants don't know how to present this evidence—with predictable results.

Hiring a disability attorney or nonlawyer representative to prove you should be bumped up to the next age level will give you the best chance to obtain benefits based on the grid rules in a borderline age situation.

Updated November 24, 2021

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