Note: We updated this article in April 2022 with the latest Social Security data and policy information. So you’re ready to retire, but aren’t quite old enough yet. Technically, you can start drawing early retirement benefits from Social Security when you turn 62. But if you’re retiring early due to health issues, stop right now — don’t apply until you read this first! If a disability forces you to stop working, ask your doctor about qualifying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments. Otherwise, you could accidentally lower your regular Social Security payments for the rest of your life.
How the SSA Calculates Disability Benefit Payments
Most people pay into the Social Security retirement system for their entire career. The current tax rate is 6.2% for both employers and employees, or 12.4% total. Known as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax, these payroll deductions equal a percentage of your current wages. Employers often lump Medicare taxes into these withholdings, too. (The current Medicare tax rate is 1.45%.)
Paying FICA taxes over time will make you eligible for Social Security retirement benefits once you’re old enough. This also covers SSDI benefits as well as Medicare health coverage. And technically, you can start drawing early retirement benefits right after your 62nd birthday. But if you decide to take early retirement at 62, you’ll receive less than your full Social Security benefit amount. In fact, the SSA may reduce your Social Security checks by 30% or more for life to cover those early retirement payments.
Essentially, here’s how that works: the SSA reduces your payment for every month between your current and full retirement age. (For most people reading this, your full retirement age for drawing Social Security retirement checks is 67.) Taking early retirement at 62 reduces your benefit anywhere from 30%-35% so the SSA can cover those additional months. As a general rule, you’ll get about the same amount in Social Security benefits totaled up over your lifetime. But on a month-to-month basis, the payment amount you’ll get is a lot less. Look at it this way: When you take early retirement at 62, you stop paying FICA taxes 4-5 years early. Paying less money into your Social Security fund means you have less money to pull out once you retire.
Why Is It Better to Apply for SSDI Than Early Retirement at 62?
If health problems force you to stop working at 62, SSDI is a much better option than early retirement. That’s because you lose money taking Social Security early retirement. And even though SSDI taps into your Social Security benefits, you get paid less overall each month with early retirement. So if you think your poor health counts as a disability, there’s no reason not to apply for SSDI instead.
Pros of Applying for Disability Benefits Instead of Early Retirement
1. If the SSA determines you’re truly disabled, you won’t get penalized for drawing Social Security early retirement benefits.
Every month you retire early, you receive less money. But SSDI is a separate program and does not tap directly into your retirement funds.
2. You will get paid more in Social Security disability benefits than you would taking early retirement.
Remember: Every month that you draw early retirement makes your Social Security check amount a little bit lower. That’s because you’ll draw payments for 4-5 years longer than usual — and much sooner than the SSA expects. The average monthly SSDI payment in 2022 is $1,358. But the SSA calculates these benefits based on each individual’s average lifetime earnings — not total household income. That means if approved, your SSDI benefits will likely be much higher than your early retirement payments.
3. Once you reach your full retirement age, you can still get the maximum Social Security payment amount you’re owed.
SSDI doesn’t directly tap into your retirement benefits; instead, your insurance policy makes those payments. As long as you worked full-time for 5 in the last 10 years and paid FICA taxes, you have coverage. And once you reach full retirement age (i.e., turn 67), your SSDI benefits automatically convert to regular Social Security. You don’t have to reapply — the SSA deposits each month’s payment directly into your bank account!
4. If you apply for SSDI, you may also qualify for up to a year’s worth of back pay.
A huge perk that comes with applying for SSDI instead of early retirement is the potential for back pay. If your disability started before you applied for SSDI, you may get up to a year’s worth of retroactive payments. While 12 months is the most back pay you can qualify for, you’ll get that amount in a single payment. So if you’re approved for $1,500 in SSDI benefits, you could potentially get $18,000 in back pay all at once!
5. The “disability freeze” limits how much the SSA penalizes you for years you don’t work or pay FICA taxes.
The disability freeze rule means the SSA ignores all months you received SSDI when computing your retirement or survivors benefits. This prevents any years you didn’t work from counting towards your regular Social Security, so your payments won’t be lower. The disability freeze also applies to anyone who got well enough to start working again after drawing SSDI benefits. If you apply for early retirement instead of SSDI, the disability freeze rule cannot protect your Social Security payments.
6. You are automatically eligible for Medicare coverage after you receive SSDI payments for 24 months.
Most people cannot get Medicare coverage until they turn 65 years old. But once you get SSDI payments for two years in a row, that rule no longer applies. If health problems stop you from working, applying for SSDI can give you Medicare access much earlier. But if you apply for early retirement, Medicare remains off-limits until after you turn 65.
Can I Apply for SSDI and Early Retirement At the Same Time?
Unfortunately, you cannot get SSDI benefits and Social Security retirement payments at the same time. That’s because once you reach full retirement age, your disability benefits automatically transfer to regular Social Security checks.
That said, it’s possible to apply for both programs at the same time. But if the SSA denies your disability application, you could lose money you need each month just to live on. Here’s how to avoid that problem: Apply for SSDI first. Doing this establishes your protective filing date, which tells the SSA when you can start drawing benefits (if you’re approved). After you’ve done that, then apply for early retirement benefits. If you have enough Social Security work credits to retire right now, then the SSA will accept your request. If your SSDI application gets approved, you can start drawing your full Social Security retirement amount immediately. (The SSA will just pay you that amount in monthly SSDI benefits instead.)
Bottom line: If you apply for early retirement before SSDI, then you’ll get reduced Social Security payments for the rest of your life. There is NO way to increase your benefits outside of going back to work again or the annual COLA in certain years.
Can I Get SSDI Benefits After I Reach Full Retirement Age?
Once you reach your full retirement age, you’re no longer eligible for SSDI. If you qualify for SSDI before that, your payments automatically convert to retirement benefits after your birthday. For most people, their monthly payment amount stays the same. Even if you keep working until you’re 70 or 80, SSDI eligibility automatically stops once you reach full retirement age. So no, it’s simply not possible to get SSDI payments once you’re age 67 or older.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
If you’re still unsure what to do, we strongly recommend talking to a lawyer. Lawyers cannot charge you anything unless they help you win benefits. Government records show having a lawyer file your paperwork nearly triples your benefit approval chances. If the SSA doesn’t approve your claim, then you pay $0 for legal assistance. And if you do win, then you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee.
Having a lawyer file your paperwork doubles your chances for benefit approval on your first application. Those who qualify for legal assistance typically get at least $12,000 in lump-sum back payments, plus monthly disability benefits.
Ready to see if you may qualify? Click the button below to start your free disability benefits evaluation now.
Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.
Mandy Voisin is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Girls of the Ocean and Star of Deliverance. As an accomplished content marketing consultant, mom of four and doctor's wife, Mandy has written hundreds of articles about dangerous drugs and medical devices, medical issues that impact disabled Americans, veterans' healthcare and workers' compensation issues since 2016.