Congress created Social Security's disability insurance program (SSDI) as a partner to the retirement program, to provide disability benefits to those who are too ill or injured to work but too young to retire. Initially, the program was only for workers between 50 and 65 years of age, but today anyone who is between the ages of 18 and 66 can apply for Social Security disability benefits.
SSDI is meant to bridge the gap between a paycheck and retirement benefits. So you can't receive Social Security retirement benefits and disability benefits at the same time (with one small exception, which we'll discuss below). In this sense, Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) can be thought of as a retirement benefit for those who are forced to retire early.
If you do start to collect SSDI disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will convert them to retirement benefits when you reach full retirement age (67 for those born in 1960 or later).
If you file for early retirement benefits between ages 62 and 65 and then you become disabled, yes, you can apply for SSDI benefits. If the SSA approves you, the agency will switch your payments from retirement benefits to disability benefits (since you can't receive Social Security and disability at the same time).
The same is true if, after you claim early retirement benefits, you find out that you could have been getting disability benefits for an existing medical condition, rather than receiving early retirement benefits. Social Security will switch you from early retirement benefits to disability benefits.
If you switch from early retirement benefits to an SSDI benefit, the disability benefit will likely be higher than the early retirement benefit you were receiving, because Social Security reduces your retirement benefits when you claim them before full retirement age). (For each year you receive early retirement benefits, Social Security reduces your retirement benefits by a reduction factor of 6.67% per year.)
In certain circumstances, you can get retroactive disability benefits for the time you were disabled bit receiving early retirement benefits, to make up for missing those higher payments.
Here's an explanation of whether Social Security will pay you extra, depending on when you become disabled.
Disabled before early retirement benefits start. Say you were getting a reduced retirement benefit for a period of time (because you had claimed retirement benefits early, before full retirement age). Then Social Security approved your application for disability benefits, agreeing that your disability began before you started receiving early retirement benefits.
Social Security will start paying you disability benefits, which are roughly equal to the amount you'd receive at full retirement. And Social Security will also make up the difference between the early retirement amount and the full disability benefit for the months you were disabled but receiving early retirement benefits, for up to 12 months.
In this sense, you would be receiving both an early retirement benefit and a disability benefit for that brief time period, to bring you up to your full disability benefit for the months you were disabled (this is the exception we referred to above).
When you reach full retirement age, Social Security will pay you your full retirement benefit, as if you had never opted to collect early retirement payments.
Disabled after early retirement benefits start. Some people collect early retirement benefits for a period of time before becoming disabled and starting to receive SSDI benefits. In other words, these are not people who were disabled while they were collecting early retirement benefits. In this case, Social Security won't pay them the difference between the disability payment and the early retirement payment for the months they were collecting retirement benefits but weren't disabled.
Also, when they reach full retirement age, Social Security will pay them reduced retirement benefits for the rest of their life, since they filed early retirement claims.
Some people who quit work at age 62 purposefully apply for disability and file for early retirement benefits at the same time, so that the early retirement payments fill the gap until the disability payments start. But, remember that there is no guarantee you'll be granted disability benefits, and you could be stuck collecting less than your full retirement rate for the rest of your life.
Still, this can work for those people who are severely impaired and are certain that they will get disability benefits. Getting disability benefits for those over 60 is easier than for younger folks, and Social Security gives special consideration to those over 65.
If you're considering applying for disability and Social Security at the same time, consider talking to a disability lawyer, who can help you assess your financial options and your chances of winning disability benefits.
During the months you were disabled but collecting retirement benefits, Social Security would apply the disability freeze, which means that Social Security will ignore your lack of income due to disability when calculating your Social Security retirement payment from your earnings record. The freeze can help increase the Social Security benefit you'll eventually receive at full retirement age.
Social Security will apply the freeze beginning at the start of your disability until the month before you reach full retirement age.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a program that could allow you to collect additional income while you're drawing Social Security retirement benefits.
To qualify for SSI and retirement benefits at the same time, your income (including Social Security) must be less than $914 per month, which is the SSI monthly payment amount in 2023. (See our article on the SSI income limit for more information on the way Social Security calculates your income.) The SSI program also has asset limits, which apply to cash you have in the bank but not your house and a car. And, of course, you must be disabled. The SSI program uses the same definition of disability as the SSDI program.
If your retirement income and assets are low enough to qualify for SSI, you can receive both retirement and SSI disability benefits at once.
Updated July 12, 2023