Social security: the “5-year rule” you need to know before retiring


According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), more than one in four 20-year-olds will develop a disability before they reach retirement age – and if that meets the SSA’s strict definition of the term, that’s serious.

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SSA’s eligibility standards for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are notoriously unforgiving. The agency pays SSDI benefits only for conditions that completely prevent the claimant from working and are expected to persist for at least one year or result in death.

According to the SSA, “only a small subset of Americans living with disabilities” are eligible for the Social Insurance program.

But the SSA’s rigid definition of disability is just one of two main obstacles faced by applicants, 67% of whom are denied benefits. Since potential recipients pay SSDI through employment taxes, applicants must also pass an inflexible labor test.

If you or a loved one are considering applying for SSDI, it is important to know what you are facing before you begin. the long, slow and often frustrating process. But if you’re successful, you could get your full Social Security payments at any age.

The SSA imposes a two-part income requirement

SSDI benefits convert to retirement benefits when the beneficiary reaches retirement age, but the amount of the payment does not change.

In order to qualify for SSDI before full retirement age, applicants must have a condition that meets the SSA definition of a disability and meet two income criteria:

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The recent work test and the five-year rule

The recent SSA work test is based on standard three-month calendar quarters that begin January 1 and end December 31.

If you develop a disability:

  • In the quarter in which you reach age 31 or later, you must have worked for five years out of the 10-year period ending with the quarter in which you developed the disability.
  • In the quarter after you turn 24 but before you turn 31, you must have worked half time for the period beginning with the quarter after you turn 21 until the quarter you became disabled.
  • In the quarter in which you reach age 24 or earlier, you must have worked 1.5 years during the three-year period ending with the quarter in which you became disabled.

The criterion of working time increases with age

To qualify for SSDI you need to have worked for at least six terms – a year and a half – but the requirement increases with age. The SSA formula is to subtract the year you turned 22 from the year you developed a disability to determine the number of quarters of coverage you need to pass the working life test.

Here is an overview of the shift threshold based on the age at which you developed a disability:

  • 60 years : 9.5 years of work
  • 58 years old: 9 years
  • 56 years old: 8.5 years
  • 54 years old: 8 years
  • 52 years : 7.5 years
  • 50 years : 7 years
  • 48 years old: 6.5 years
  • 46 years : 6 years
  • 44 years : 5.5 years
  • 42 years old : 5 years
  • 38 years old : 4 years
  • 34 years old : 3 years
  • 30 years : 2 years
  • Before age 28: 1.5 years

Some blind applicants may qualify if they only pass the working time test.

How to register

Receiving SSDI before reaching retirement age does not reduce your retirement benefits the way an early claim for Social Security does. SSDI recipients who reach retirement age will receive the same payment, but it will be converted into their retirement benefits.

If you think your disability qualifies for SSDI and you pass both work tests, you should apply as soon as you develop a disability – the SSA takes an average of three to six months to process applications.

If you can’t apply right away, don’t panic. SSA may pay disability benefits up to 12 months before you apply if the agency determines that you had an eligible disability and met all other conditions during that time.

You can apply online at or call (800) 772-1213 to schedule an appointment at your local Social Security office or to submit your claim over the phone.

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