Getting disability benefits when you’re older than 55 can be easier than when you’re younger, thanks to a special set of rules called the medical-vocational grid. The grid rules are aimed at people closer to retirement age who can’t do their past work. The rules let the Social Security Administration (SSA) consider factors that can make it difficult for these people to switch jobs— factors like whether they have any skills that transfer to other work.
While most people younger than 50 need to show that they can’t perform the easiest sit-down jobs before the SSA can find them disabled, people over the age of 50 might get disability even if they can do a sit-down job. And if you’re 55 or older and can do a half-standing, half-sitting job, you could still qualify for disability benefits.
What Are the Social Security Disability Rules After Age 55?
Social Security categorizes disability applicants between the ages of 55 and 59 as “advanced age.” Within this category, Social Security’s grid rules are divided into tables based on exertional levels. Exertional levels describe the most weight you can carry and the longest you can be on your feet during a work day.
Your exertional level is an important part of your residual functional capacity (RFC). Here are some of the exertional levels that Social Security uses:
- Sedentary work requires you to lift up to 10 pounds and stand or walk for 2 hours total.
- Light work requires you to lift up to 20 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.
- Medium work requires you to lift up to 50 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.
- Heavy work requires you to lift up to 100 pounds and stand or walk for 6 hours total.
You won’t be able to get disability under the grid rules if you can physically perform heavy work, and if you can perform medium work, you can only qualify if you have a limited education and have never worked before.
But if you can do only light or sedentary work, the SSA will use the grid rules to see if the rules “direct a finding of disability” based on additional factors, such as your level of education.
Using the Grid Rules Over 55
Below are the grid rules for people between the ages of 55 and 59 who have an RFC for sedentary work. Find the rows that best describe your education level and previous work experience. The third column shows the decision the SSA will make based on those two factors.
RFC for SEDENTARY WORK
|Education||Previous Work Experience||Decision|
|11th grade education or lower||Unskilled work or no past relevant work||Disabled|
|11th grade education or lower||Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills||Disabled|
|11th grade education or lower||Skilled or semi-skilled work with transferable skills||Not disabled|
|High school graduate or higher||Unskilled work or no past relevant work||Disabled|
|High school graduate or higher||Skilled or semiskilled work without transferable skills||Disabled|
|High school graduate or higher||Skilled or semi-skilled work with transferable skills||Not disabled|
|Recent education or training for skilled work||Unskilled work or no past relevant work||Not disabled|
|Recent education or training for skilled work||Skilled or semi-skilled work with or without transferable skills||Not disabled|
Examples of Using the 55-59 Grid Rules
Here are some examples of when a person in the advanced age category can be approved based on the grids.
- Selma is a 57-year-old woman who applied for disability based on her diabetes, which made it hard for her to stand for longer than one hour during the workday. She had a high school education but hadn’t worked for 25 years. The SSA determined that Selma had the RFC to perform sedentary work only. The grids directed a finding of disabled and Selma’s application for benefits was approved.
- Lars is a 56-year-old man who applied for disability because of moderate emphysema. He had a 10th-grade education and had worked his whole life as a commercial fisherman. The SSA found that Lars shouldn’t lift more than 20 pounds due to his emphysema and gave him an RFC for light work. Because Lars didn’t have any transferable skills from his job as a fisherman, he was approved under the grids.
Here are some examples of when a person over 55 would be found not disabled:
- Owen is a 55-year-old man who filed for disability due to arthritis in both knees. He had a college education, and his past work was as a hotel manager. The SSA determined that Owen had an RFC for sedentary work, but that he had transferable skills including the ability to manage groups and interact with customers. Given these factors, the grids directed a finding of not disabled.
- Tina is a 58-year-old woman who filed for disability based on hepatitis C. Tina had a GED and some college credits. The SSA determined that Tina’s hepatitis C symptoms limited her to medium work. Because of her education level and medium RFC, Tina was denied under the grids.
What If the Grid Rules Say “Not Disabled”
Even if the grid rules don’t direct a finding of disabled, you can still get benefits if you can show your limitations actually prevent you from doing the kind of work the SSA says you can do. Because the grid rules only address exertional levels, you can qualify for benefits if you have a combination of exertional and non-exertional limitations that prevent you from working. Mental limitations are one type of non-exertional limitations that can keep you from using the transferable skills you might have learned.
Another common way to win is to prove you can’t even do a sit-down job. For instance, if you have carpal tunnel syndrome but the SSA denied you benefits because you had a sedentary RFC, a college education, and transferable job skills, you could appeal and show that your inability to use your hands and fingers doesn’t allow you to do any sedentary jobs.
Contact an Attorney for Help If You’re Older Than 55
Many claimants who are 55 or older have better odds of winning their disability case using the grids. But the nuances of applying the grids can be tricky, especially for highly skilled applicants or people with complicated RFCs. You might want to consider contacting an experienced disability attorney to help you navigate the grid rules and handle communication with Social Security.