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.
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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 2022 is $147,000.)
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 2 months for people born in 1955, 66 and 4 months for people born in 1956 and gradually rising 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.