If an illness or injury leaves you unable to work for an extended period, your income is almost certain to take a hit. And years with little or no income can reduce or even eliminate future Social Security retirement benefits, which are based on your lifetime earnings history.
That’s why the Social Security Administration (SSA) instituted a mechanism called a “disability freeze,” which mitigates the impact of a disability today on your benefit tomorrow.
A disability freeze stops Social Security from counting your income during the years in which a medical condition restricts your ability to work. Those years are not included in your benefit calculation, so you won’t be penalized for a period when you are unable to work.
How a disability freeze works
To understand how a freeze works, it helps to know the basics of how retirement benefits are calculated. Social Security takes your 35 highest-earning years, adjusts them for historical wage growth and derives an average monthly income. (The SSA only factors in income up to an annually adjusted cap, which in 2023 is $160,200.)
Social Security then applies a formula to that monthly average to determine your basic benefit — the amount you are eligible for if you claim it at full retirement age (66 and 4 months for people born in 1956, gradually rising two months each birth year to 67 for those born in or after 1960). If you qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), your highest-earning years are also used to calculate those payments.