Secrets to winning Social Security disability at age 50 (or above)

If you are 50 years old or older, Social Security makes it easier to prove your disability case. Individuals between 18 and 49 meet a tougher standard discussed in this article.

Starting at age 50, and then again at age 55 and 60, Social Security lowers the requirements for proving disability. The rationale is that the older you are, the harder it is to work in a job that you have never done before.

  • After age 50, Social Security can approve you for disability benefits even though you are able to do some type of work.
  • The older you are, the more physically demanding the work can be and still allow you qualify for disability benefits.

However, this is not a free pass! Do not leave this article before you read the “gotchas” at the bottom.

Medical-Vocational Guidelines

The reduced requirements for proving Social Security disability cases are contained in the “Medical-Vocational Guidelines” also known as the “Grid Rules.” It is important to understand where the Grid Rules fit in with Social Security’s disability evaluation process.

Take a moment to review the 5 step sequential evaluation process. These are the 5 steps that Social Security uses to decide disability cases for adults.

  1. Are you working (at an SGA level)?
  2. Is your impairment severe?
  3. Do your impairments “meet or equal” one of Social Security’s Listing of Impairments?
  4. Can you do past work –  any of the jobs you performed (at a SGA level)  over the last 15 years.
  5. Can you do other work – any other type of work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy?

Note: I am simplifying and abbreviating each step — check out the link above for a more thorough review.

Here is how Social Security goes through these steps:

  • To qualify for disability, you have to show that you are not working at SGA (step 1) and that your conditions are severe (step 2).
  • Step 3 – meeting a listing, is the first step at which an individual can be approved. However, only a small number of cases are approved here.
  • If you not approved at step 3, you have to get over both steps 4 and 5. You have to show that you cannot perform any work done 15 years prior to the onset date AND that you cannot perform any other type of work (that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy).

The Grid Rules apply at step five of the sequential evaluation process. That means that before the Grids come into play, you have to already shown that, (Step 1) you are not working an SGA job, (Step 2) your condition is severe, (Step 3), you did not meet or equal a listing, and (Step 4) you cannot perform the duties of any job done at a SGA level 15 years before the disability began.

Step 4 can be tricky. Step asks if you can still physically and/or mentally perform the duties of any job which:

  1. You performed in the 15 years before your alleged onset date; and
  2. You performed long enough to learn how to do the job; and
  3. The job was performed at a substantial gainful activity level .

In short, if you can still perform the duties of a past job, you do not get to use the Grid Rules and you may be denied.

However, if you cannot do any past relevant work, here is how the Grid Rules may help you:

Ages 50 to 54

You can be approved for Social Security disability benefits even if you are still able to perform sedentary work so long as your past work was not skilled or semi-skilled, or if you do not have transferable skills to other work.

If you are illiterate, or unable to communicate in English, and have no past relevant work or only unskilled work, you can be approved even if you are able to perform light work.

Ages 55 to 59

If you are between 55 and 59 years old, you can be approved for Social Security disability benefits even if you are able to perform light work.

However, if you have a 11th grade or lower education and no past relevant work, you can be disabled even if you are able to perform medium work.

Ages 60 to 64

Here is where the rules get tricky. If you are between 60 years old and 64 years old, you can be approved for Social Security disability benefits even though you can perform:

  • Light work,
    • If you have a high school degree or higher level of education.
    • Or, if you have an 11th grade education, your past work was skilled semi-skilled but the skills are not transferable.
    • Or, you have a 7th to 11th grade education and your past work was unskilled.
  • Medium work,
    • If you have an 11th grade education or lower and no prior work experience.
    • Or, if you have a sixth-grade education and your past work was unskilled.

Yes, things get complicated in the 60 to 64 age bracket.

Here are the GOTCHAS!

As mentioned above: you have to show that you are not able to perform your past work. If you are still capable of performing the duties of any of the past jobs you have done (at a SGA level) in the 15 years before your disability began, then the Grid Rules do not apply. These exceptions only apply if you can first prove that you cannot perform any past relevant work (PRW).

The other gotcha is that you cannot actually be working at a SGA level. These rules deal with having a “residual functional capacity” (what you are still able to do) that still allows some kind of work. In other words, you can still have an “ability to work,” but you cannot actually be working at a substantial gainful activity level (unless one of these exceptions apply).


Here are some examples:

Over the last 15 years, you performed construction or labor jobs (medium to heavy occupations). Due to a back injury, you can no longer lift over 10 pounds and you can not stand for more than 2 hours out of an 8 hour day. This puts you in the sedentary exertional category.

This means you can still work but only at a sit-down job. In reality, you would probably need a job that has a sit/stand option, but that is not relevant for this discussion.

  • If you are between 18 and 49 years old, there is a good chance you will be denied because you are still able to do sedentary work.
  • However, if you are 50 years old, you will probably be approved because of the Grid Rules.

Lets shake things up. If in the last 15 years you worked for 6 months as a telemarketer (a sedentary job), you will probably be denied even at age 50 because you can still do a past job. This would be a step 4 denial.

Finally, if you are working at a SGA level at any exertional level, you are not disabled because you are able to work. A step 1 denial.

The Grid Rules are technical, but they can really be a short-cut in a Social Security disability case.

However, if you do not qualify under one of these rules, it is not the end of your case. The Grid Rules only consider a very small group of limitations (lifting/carrying, sitting, standing and walking). They do not consider bending, kneeling, using fingers and hands, working around others, or any other limitations. If you do not meet a grid rule (and most of my clients do not), all of your other limitations still need to be considered and may let you win your case.

A version of this article was first published by Tomasz Stasiuk on Bob Kraft’s site.

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  • mohamed

    I am american citizen since 2010 my age is 59 born in july 17th 1952 I could not find a job in states and trying to work over seas now but I have pain in my bons I am wondering if I can get a kind of social security disability benefits , please advice , thanks very much

    • http://stasiukfirm.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      I can’t tell you. Give your local Social Security office a call.

      • mohamed

        I will thanks so much

  • margaret

    I am a 58 yr old secretary who had to quit recently because of failed back surgery over a yr ago, my doc wants to do another surgery but I refuse. I also found out I have multi level encroachments in my neck. I can’t sit for 30 minutes, walk very far or stand up. My butt, legs, lower back and between shoulder blades and neck are always hurting me. I take meds but I can’t focus when I do that. Also have been having panic attacks and sever anxiety and seeing a doc for that.

    • http://stasiukfirm.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      Sounds like there is a case there.

  • Mary

    I have Osteoarthritis in my knees lower back and minimal in my spine and neck. Is it possible for me to draw SSI ?

    • http://stasiukfirm.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      Possible? Maybe. However, a diagnosis is only a first step. I encourage you to get a case evaluation from an attorney in your area to see what benefits you may qualify for and appraisal of your chances of success. Good luck, Mary!

  • Vc Car

    I am 52, worked since I was 13 at various jobs and most recently was a special needs bus driver. I hurt myself stepping out of the bus and have not worked since January of last year. I have tried the Worman’s Comp route and am not being very successful as the MRI shows degenerative problems and strain at the SI but nothing glaring that they can say was caused by the incident. I have also tried Disability but was refused the first time. I have a law firm ‘working’ for me, but I feel they are very busy and I rarely know what is happening. Is there something different I should be doing as this is the first I’ve heard that I should qualify more easily because of my age. Thank you.

  • doug

    I have been in auto sales for 27 years. I have bad knees. Severe hemroids, incontinence and I also find that I am so burned out in my career that is in my opinion effecting my overall health and well being. I have applied for other jobs in different fields of work to no avail. I am thinking I am getting to the age of being unemployable. I am 55 years old. what in your opinion are my chances of getting disability benefits?

  • maddy

    Iam 49 years old and only have a 9 th grade education an have spinal stenosis and also have very high blood diabetes in wich Iam insulen depended.

  • beckie

    hello im 52 and i was told that i have cervical stenosis and wear and tear in the lower back would i be considerd as disabled?

  • Sarah

    Hi I will be 50 in a few days. I filed disability in 2009 due to back and knee pain. Severe. Was on medications, could not concentrate as the person agreed to in court, that I was “unable ” to do any type of prior work due to meds. However, at the judge Hearing, I was still denied, 2012. Now, I am much worse and my doctor retired in Dec 2014, have not replaced him as I am uninsured, cash pay, unemployed, and need advice. I dismissed my firm that had my case in 2009-2012. I took on another group from ATL that said I should start OVER, not realizing that I lost all that time and past years, I did. Now I am close to a video conference upcoming soon, maybe Aug 2015. What are my chances and I am not satisfied with this atty. group. Do I need an atty in GA or from anywhere? Seems like you know what you are talking about. Help.

    • http://stasiukfirm.com/ TomaszStasiuk

      In my opinion, the two big questions someone looking for representation needs to ask are: 1) who am I going to be working with before the hearing? And 2) who is going to be there with me at the hearing? “Our trained staff” and “an experienced attorney” are not sufficient answers. Why? Because it is becoming common to have cases ignored until the hearing is scheduled. And then to farm out the representation to a local attorney at the last minute to be a warm body at the hearing. And those two answers still permit that.

      Have I ever seen this disclosed to a client? Nope. But I see it regularly. I encourage people to look for regular meetings with the person who will be representing them at the hearing. If the company cannot provide that, look elsewhere.

  • Patricia

    I am 53 yrs old, tried to commit suicide 3 times, most recently last year, I have severe depression, back and neck problems, I just applied for SSD, what is my chances of collecting the first time applying, I do have an attorney