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The Age Advantage

Your Benefits and You

June 1998

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has reported a significant increase in older people with HIV/AIDS.

That isn't good news for silver fox set, but when it comes to disability benefits, age has a number of meaningful advantages over youth.

To begin with, the older you are, the easier it is to win a disability claim.

How claims are approved

When Social Security evaluates HIV/AIDS disability claims, they look primarily at two aspects of disability: medical and what they call "functional" capacity. Whether you are young or old, if you meet the medical standard of disability, your claim will be approved. This generally means you have had one or more major opportunistic infections (Pneumocystis, CMV, MAI, etc.) associated with HIV, or that you have a very severe HIV-symptomatic diagnosis.

However, if your condition does not meet the required level of medical severity, Social Security can and often will deny your claim, unless you can prove that your functional capacity is also severely impaired.

With younger claimants, Social Security often downplays claims of functional incapacity, by maintaining that "Spunky" can be retrained or re-educated to perform a less strenuous type of work. In other words, Social Security says that even if you can no longer work the party circuit, you could answer phones.

Easier to meet standards

Social Security considers older claimants harder to retrain and less suitable for career changes. Consequently, the standard of functional capacity for the senior set is easier to meet than for younger folks. Even if you disagree with this concept in general, it makes claims easier to win and that is saying a lot these days.

Another clear advantage for people with HIV nearing early retirement age (62), is that they can choose early retirement instead of applying for disability. In this scenario, people between 62 years old, but not yet 65, would have an automatic eligibility for their benefits. They would not have to meet Social Security's stringent standard of disability.

There is a downside to this scenario. Early retirees only receive about 80 percent of their full retirement benefit, or the amount they would get from disability. On the other hand, early retirees collect their benefits for a longer period of time.

And Social Security is very accommodating for this crowd. Early retirement benefits, for example, are not subject to the same "offsets" or reductions, that apply to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

A person who is disabled by Social Security's standards, could choose early retirement payments while SDI is also paying, and then, when State Disability ends, switch the claim to disability at its full amount.

Also, if you elect early retirement, instead of disability, Social Security will allow you to apply for Medicare separately. Normally, if you take Social Security early retirement at age 62, you would have to wait until age 65 to get your Medicare. But, if you filed a disability claim at age 62, you could conceivably get your Medicare in two years, at age 64, instead of waiting until you turned 65.

By allowing older individuals to apply for Medicare at the same time they elect early retirement, Social Security is basically giving them Medicare a year ahead of time. It's a gift; don't question it.

What if you're working?

Real advantages for seniors taking early retirement instead of disability come into play when the claimant is still working or returning to work.

If you apply for, or collect, Social Security Disability, and you are working, you are subject to Social Security's nine-month trial work period and stingy earnings limitations. Yes, you can work, and your benefits can continue, for up to 12 months. But if your wages are over $500 a month, you would be barred from applying, or if you are on benefits, after a 12-month grace period, your payments could end.

Not so for early retirees. These individuals can earn up to $9,120 a year without earnings affecting their benefits at all. If earnings go above that amount, then Social Security reduces the benefit by one dollar for every two you earn over $9,120. But the benefit itself is never endangered by the work activity. At age 65, retirees can earn up to $14,500 a year. Above that amount, Social Security deducts one dollar for every three earned.

And that earnings limitation for retirees is steadily increasing each year.

For the over-50-and-married crowd, there are also "spousal" benefits for wives or husbands which are not generally available to younger claimants.

In general, Social Security's claims representatives are instructed to process claims to the advantage of the claimant. If you are in your late 50s or 60s, and you are thinking about applying for Social Security disability, contact a benefits counselor first. Although Social Security's claims representatives should advise you of your options, it helps if you know at least as much as they do when you go in to apply.

AIDS Project Los Angeles' Benefits Department holds Social Security Forms Workshops at 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday at 1313 N. Vine St. The workshops are open to the public, and while the presentation focuses on HIV claims, much of the material applies to claims in general, regardless of the disability.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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