Q&A: Retirees and disability benefits

Dear Liz: I have a few simple questions about disability, but have been getting different answers from different advisors. Even the Social Security site has different answers. My wife, a nurse, is 71 and has been working for more than 45 years. She is receiving Social Security benefits, starting when she was 70. She has been working in the office, with little patient contact, for 2½ days weekly for a few years with a salary of just over $50,000. She has progressive neuromuscular pain, with significant pain and discomfort in the right upper leg with radiation. It affects her most when she is sitting, which is how she performs her job. She has seen multiple specialists. She does have various meds for pain, but they cloud her thinking, and she doesn’t want that to affect her work. She is missing more and more time. Is she eligible for disability? If so, can she apply while she is still working, or does she need to have stopped completely? Will her Social Security affect or be affected by her disability? Is there a rough estimate as to the disability payments she may get if she is eligible?

Answer: There is nothing simple about Social Security’s disability benefit program. In general, though, it’s meant to provide a subsistence level of income for people younger than retirement age who can’t work. The average monthly Social Security disability payment is less than $1,500 a month. Benefits are granted only to people who are totally disabled, meaning they can’t work and their condition has lasted or is expected to last at least a year or result in death.

Social Security disability payments aren’t designed to supplement retirement benefits. Once a disabled person reaches their full retirement age, which is currently between 66 and 67, a Social Security disability benefit converts to a retirement benefit, says Christopher Lanfranca, a senior retirement analyst with Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategies site. Someone who applies for disability benefits past full retirement age probably would be given retirement benefits instead.

Adjusting to a $50,000 drop in income could be tough. Consider consulting a fee-only financial planner or accredited financial counselor who can review your financial situation and offer suggestions.

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