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Social Security Disability: What Happens When You Turn 66?

Source: Social Security Administration.

This article was updated on July 30, 2015.

Most people think of Social Security as a retirement program, but disability benefits are also a huge part of Social Security. Almost 9 million Americans receive Social Security disability benefits, with nearly 2 million more dependents relying on the program to help make ends meet.

One of the most confusing things about Social Security disability is what happens after you reach retirement age. For many disabled Americans, shortened work histories mean that retirement benefits would ordinarily be unavailable or insufficient to meet their financial needs. But in figuring retirement benefits for the disabled, Social Security doesn't follow the same formula that it uses for most retirees.

Why retirement scares Social Security disability recipients

The biggest concern that those receiving Social Security disability have about reaching full retirement age, which is currently 66, is that their benefit amounts will go down. The reason has to do with the way that disability and retirement benefits are calculated.

Specifically, in determining how much you receive in disability benefits, Social Security takes a look at your average lifetime earnings during the period before your disability began. It then uses a formula to come up with what's called the primary insurance amount, which is the base for determining how much you'll get from Social Security.

In many ways, the calculation of disability benefits closely resembles how Social Security determines retirement benefits. But the big difference is in the length of work history that gets considered. For more retirees, Social Security looks at a 35-year work history, and if you've worked less than that, then Social Security fills in the blanks with zeroes. That has the effect of bringing your average earnings down, and it therefore produces a lower primary insurance amount and reduces the benefits you'd receive.

Source: Social Security Administration.

Obviously, for those who have been disabled for a long time, accumulating a 35-year work history is impossible. Many disability recipients therefore dread the possibility that their Social Security payments will go away or be greatly reduced when they qualify for retirement benefits.

What happens with Social Security disability recipients at retirement age?

The Social Security Administration recognizes that concern, and it takes into account the impact that disability has on income potential. Specifically, as the SSA spells out here, when you reach full retirement age, if you're still receiving disability benefits, then they automatically convert into retirement benefits. However, even though they're technically paid out of a different part of the Social Security program, the amount remains the same as it was before, based on the formulas that govern how much you received in disability benefits. In essence, for disability recipients, Social Security ignores the 35-year work history rule and only considers work history prior to disability.

In addition, even if you're not disabled at the time you retire, many individuals qualify for what the SSA calls a "disability freeze." By applying for the disability freeze, you can ask Social Security to ignore your periods of disability in their calculations for retirement and survivors' benefits. That in turn makes sure that you're not penalized for those zero-earnings years even if you're able to overcome your disability and return to work later in your career.

1 special rule for early retirees

Source: SSA.

Interestingly, there's a special rule that applies for those who become disabled and then apply for early retirement benefits under Social Security. If you became disabled, started collecting early retirement, and then had your disability application approved by the SSA, then you'll continue receiving your Social Security retirement payments, but you'll also get disability benefits that are enough to bring you to the full amount of the monthly payment you're entitled to receive. Moreover, when you reach full retirement age, you'll receive full retirement benefits as if you had never filed for early retirement benefits.

Note well, though, that this doesn't apply if you were already collecting early retirement benefits before you were disabled. In that case, you'll receive disability payments, but your retirement benefits at age 66 will go back to their reduced amount based on your having started collecting them early.

In general, most Americans receiving disability benefits won't face the huge financial challenges they fear once they reach full retirement age. Continuing to get payments at their previous level isn't always the perfect solution, but it's far better than losing benefits entirely.

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Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (41)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 10:56 AM, lavender2462 wrote:


  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 11:57 AM, clchapman wrote:

    I can see why some worry

    I started early retirement in the process I became disabled. and was still working

    I had reduced benefits coming in and then when I was awarded disability they raise my benefits

    The problem is they will not tell me if they will go back down ,stay the same or go up when I go full retirement in DEC

    You can't always go by what SS tells you

    They are not always truthful

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 12:42 PM, violet234 wrote:

    I appreciate this post. My story is different. I was born with moderate severe hearing loss. It was genetic from my mother's side. I was only fitted with one hearing aid. But should of had two. So for years I only had the one. Then finally two. I worked for 31 years or more. But, my right ear finally died altogether, making it very difficult to continue working. Over the years the places I worked, for whatever reason(s) changed their names, went out of business, so I fear SSA does not even recognize that I worked at these places. Which would put my work history in error(s). In other words, I worked longer than 31 years, could be 33-35. It is hard to configure, but I hope I could be treated fairly. To short me, would be a disgrace. I am a natural U.S. citizen, and should be shown all due respect. Many in my situation would have indeed worked 0 years. Thanks.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 2:08 PM, ahille wrote:

    The reason I had worried about a drop in benefits once I reach retirement age is that on my annual SSA statements the disability amount listed is significantly higher than the retirement amount listed each year. I didn't know what to expect at all, and was also worried about what would happen if I ever do get well from my illness and can go back to work after being out of the workforce for a number of years. I have no savings or retirement other than SSA because medical expenses wiped me out, and SSDI isn't exactly enough to rebuild these funds! Since I struggle to survive on SSDI payments currently, I couldn't imagine getting by on even less after reaching retirement age, as my monthly medical costs may continue for life, or increase as I age. This article was very helpful in explaining how this will work. I had read another article on this topic elsewhere that did not explain things nearly as well, so I cannot thank you enough for clearing things up and explaining how to address the non-working years if one goes back to work after prolonged disability.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 2:46 PM, pj71449 wrote:

    This is a topic about which I was very concerned. When I was 29 yo, I was run down by a hit and run driver. I was severely injured and not expected to lived. I was in a deep coma for three months and every bone on my right side broken at least once, including a crushed hip, a right arm with multiple compound fractures ( had I not been comatose, it would have been amputated) and substantial nerve damage. Ergo, I've been forever unable to work. This occurred 19 Feb 78. I just turned 66 earlier this month and was concerned about what would occur with my SSDI. To my pleasant surprise, it didn't decrease. Accordingly, a great amount of stress was avoided.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 3:14 PM, bubble wrote:

    I was 100% disabled by a stroke at the age of 57.When I turned 66 in June 2014 I got a huge increase in my SS payments.It came to about 20% more.I owned my own micro biz and paid every dollar of taxes out of my own pocket.Then I would sit down and cry.My kids would have to do without some things untill I got to build my bank account back up.I am so glad that I paid into SS every dollar that I owed.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 4:51 PM, dusty10x wrote:

    Do not need an article...Just print that "nothing changes for you" and stop the babbling.....

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 5:36 PM, wisdomgiver wrote:

    Hello All, I need to ask a question that may seem foolish. I am 63 and have been disabled since 2008. I don't have over 35 working years for tax-paying purposes. My question is: How do I know if I will have my benefits (money and health coverage) reduced in three years? And secondly, (I guess I have two questions!) How do I invest, say in MLP's, in that short amount of time to make any real return, should my benefits go down? Keep in mind, I do not have $15K to invest. If I did, I wouldn't be here!

    Thank you to all who take time to read my post and send helpful advice. Feel free to send any comments to my in-box at

    Happy Investing,


  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 8:21 PM, VegasSmitty wrote:

    Pretty long article when it only needed a one sentence answer.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2014, at 12:29 AM, JeanH wrote:

    Leslie, if you read the article, your benefit will not go down at full retirement age. Only a retirement benefit is based on 35 years of work. ahille, when annual statements were automatically sent out, the disability amount was based on becoming disabled in the year the statement was received, it was not what the disability amount would be when you turned 62 or reached full retirement age. Bubble, your benefit amount would not have increased 20% if you were receiving disabled benefits based on your own work and then reached 66 unless you did additional work or became entitled to additional benefits as a spouse or widow(er). I worked for SSA for almost 40 years. Employees have no incentive to give out wrong info. If you think an employee is giving you wrong info, you can ask to speak to a supervisor.

  • Report this Comment On October 30, 2014, at 6:46 PM, calebhart54 wrote:

    I learned a lot about social security from this post. It's true that you shouldn't rely on social security as a retirement plan. The whole reason we save for retirement is so we have money to live with while getting our social security to pad our finances. It makes no sense to not save and plan to live off social security.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2014, at 3:08 PM, jeanniemac wrote:

    I want to thank you for the article. I have been on disability since 2006. I lost a career that I loved so much due to severe depressive disorder, anxiety that so often leads to grand mal seizures , Nothing has helped but I can't tell you how terrified I was thinking my benefits would lessen significantly when I hit retirement age, I have actually had seizures because of it. Unfortunately my 401k is gone because before I applied for SSD my mental health was so bad i couldn't keep a job. Is there anything that I can do to have any kind of retirement? Im already 56 yrs old, I have no savings, or assets. I know it's late in the game but this is what keeps me up at night.

  • Report this Comment On May 28, 2015, at 11:06 AM, herrick9 wrote:

    Solid article but of course folks are going to have questions more specific to their personal situations.

    With so much misinformation re: Social Secuirty out there via some MSM and Blogs, I have always found it helpful to check back with the source or to call the 800 # with any concerns....From the horse's mouth so to speak...Let me correct myself there are a few good and informative Blogs but you have to dig for them...

    Meanwhile it's not easy out there with the prices of everything escalting at alarming rates and little if any relief in sight..

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2015, at 6:09 PM, crusilex wrote:

    hello, motley,

    does this refer to disability payments, or also to my disability status, which is permanent?

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Dan Caplinger has been a contract writer for the Motley Fool since 2006. As the Fool's Director of Investment Planning, Dan oversees much of the personal-finance and investment-planning content published daily on With a background as an estate-planning attorney and independent financial consultant, Dan's articles are based on more than 20 years of experience from all angles of the financial world.

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