Q: Due to a serious illness, my husband was forced to retire with a disability pension. A friend suggested he apply for Social Security. This is confusing to us since he is only 60 years old and we thought the earliest a worker could collect retirement benefits was age 62. Could you please clarify this?

A: This is going to be a real challenge trying to explain a multi complex system within the confines of this column. Generally people think of Social Security as an income resource for employed individuals once they have the required number of work quarters and reach retirement age. Previously to draw down on your maximum benefit a worker had to wait until they turned 65. The full retirement age has now increased for all workers born after 1938.

Individuals have the option of filing a claim and withdrawing reduced benefits at the age of 62. There are numerous opinions about the rationality of early retirement. Beneficiaries should consider the average life expectancy is increasing so there is a good indication they will draw this income for a much longer period of time, which may or may not offset the early withdrawal penalty.

The Social Security disability component adheres to another set of guidelines where the age factor is not the driving force. The applicant must have the required number of hours/work history and have a medical condition which qualifies him or her for full disability (lasts longer than five months). This category could include adults in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, as well as much older adults.

Once an individual has submitted all required medical documentation, his or her condition is deemed appropriate and lasts beyond the five months, benefit checks should begin the sixth full month after the date of disability. An individual's physician must submit documentation regarding the medical condition which prevents continued employment. While the documentation is critical in the application process, the final decision is made by the Disability Determination Office within the state you reside.

There are some exceptions to this lengthy qualification process. There is a list of medical conditions that warrants automatic approval for disability benefits and puts applicants on the fast track to receive benefits. Recently early-onset Alzheimer's disease was added to the Compassionate Allowance category. This enables people to receive their approval sometimes in a matter of days as opposed to months.

Families and potential applicants can receive additional information regarding Social Security Disability by accessing the website at www.socialsecurity.gov or calling your local Social Security office.

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Rosanne Distefano is the executive director of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley. Do you have a question? E-mail her at ro@esmv.org or write to Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc., 360 Merrimack St., Lawrence, MA 01843.

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