Yes. If you become disabled after filing early for retirement benefits, you may be able to change to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Similarly, if you retire early but belatedly discover that an existing condition might have qualified you for a higher disability benefit, you may be able claim it retroactively.
For the vast majority of disability recipients, who claim SSDI before retiring, the question is moot. If you file first for SSDI, at any age, the benefit is calculated as if you were at full retirement age (FRA) — the age at which you qualify for 100 percent of the benefit amount determined by your lifetime earnings. Once you reach FRA, your disability benefit automatically converts to a retirement benefit, in most cases at the same amount.
But suppose you started Social Security at 62, for reasons unrelated to health, taking a reduction in benefits for filing before full retirement age (currently 66 and 2 months but gradually rising to 67 over the next several years). Six months later, you are diagnosed with kidney disease. You can file for SSDI, and if the claim is approved, you will get a higher benefit, backdated to when you applied for disability. (You will still not get your full retirement benefit, but the “reduction factor” for early retirement will shrink from four years to just the period when you were only eligible for retirement benefits.)
Or, say you claim Social Security retirement benefits at 62 because you can no longer work due to failing eyesight. Your doctor had already diagnosed macular degeneration, but you only learn later that this could have qualified you for SSDI. If you can prove your disability began before you took early retirement, Social Security will retroactively pay up to 12 months of the difference between what you’ve received so far and what you would have gotten under SSDI. (If you applied for disability within a year of starting Social Security, this could mean being restored to your full retirement benefit; after a year, there will be some reduction.)
Because disability claims take months, even years longer to process than retirement claims, some people who turn 62 with significant health issues apply for both benefits at once, so as to have some Social Security income while awaiting an SSDI decision. As above, if your disability application is approved, you will get a higher benefit (though not necessarily your full retirement benefit) and a retroactive payment.
But this is a risky strategy: Disability claims have a high standard of proof and are often rejected, in which case you’ll be stuck with the reduced retirement benefit for life. Consider consulting an attorney well-versed in disability law before pursuing this course.
In all these scenarios, if you switch from retirement benefits to SSDI, the disability amount you are getting when you reach full retirement age becomes your retirement benefit.
Keep in mind
- Retirement benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years, but people on disability may have had much less time in the work force. In such cases, your SSDI benefit is determined by your inflation-adjusted average earnings from age 21 until the year you became disabled.
- Factors other than those noted in the simplified examples above can play into how Social Security calculates a retirement-to-disability benefit. You can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 or visit your local office to discuss how switching benefits could affect you.
Editor’s note: Local Social Security offices are currently closed to walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Social Security services are available online and by phone. If you have a "dire need situation" regarding your benefits or need to update information attached to your Social Security number, such as your name or citizenship status, you may be able to schedule an in-person appointment. See Social Security's coronavirus page or call your local office for more information.
Updated May 13, 2021