Q. What is the number of quarters needed in each age group to qualify for Social Security Disability? Also what is the difference between Social Security and SSI benefits? —J.M., by email

A. Social Security explains this very clearly on their website at this link: www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/disability/dqualify2.html. It explains the number of quarters of work needed at different ages to qualify for disability. One of the important things here is that a young person can qualify for disability with very few work credits. This is important because some conditions, such as schizophrenia, emerge relatively early in life— typically in the late teens or very early twenties— when the person may have minimal work experience.

Many people with physical or mental impairments find it virtually impossible to build a larger work record. That’s why the rules call for different quarters at different ages.

Social Security benefits are the payments workers can collect in retirement based on having a work record that qualifies them for benefits. The benefit is calculated using a complicated formula that includes the workers’ 35 highest-earnings years. The formula is tilted so that lower-wage workers receive proportionately more for their earnings than higher-wage workers. This year, for instance, a retiring low-wage worker would receive about $10,519 a year while an average worker, who earned more than twice as much, would receive $17,341.

But some people don’t have enough of a work record to qualify for Social Security benefits. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, was created to provide an income for such people. To qualify for SSI, recipients are means tested. This means they must have minimal assets or income from other sources. An individual can have no more than $2,000 and a couple is limited to $3,000. The value of your home is not counted, if you live in it. Neither is the value of your car and certain other assets, such as ownership of a burial plot.
This year the monthly federal payment for an individual is $733. The monthly payment for a couple is $1,100. States, however, may add to the federal payments. In California, for instance, an individual living independently receives $889.40 a month while an independent couple receives $1,496.20. If the person does not live independently, however, the monthly benefit is lower— $648.50 in California for an individual. Yes, it’s complicated.

Q. My husband is 73, I’m 70, and due to helping three adult children with medical and legal issues, we are $100,000 in debt. This is not a joke. I am employed full time, making $78,000 a year, with no plans to retire. My husband gets minimal Social Security, a small pension, and sporadically works a low-paying part-time job.

We own our small home; our cars are 14 years and 6 years old. We never take a vacation or spend money frivolously. We pay our bills on time and make more than the minimum payment on the credit cards. But we cannot make a dent in this debt. What can we responsibly do? Again, I’m not kidding; we don’t know how to solve this. —B.S., by email

A. One thing you can do is find out if your children can, or will, help. Inter-generational helping was meant to be a two-way street, so if their circumstances permit it now, they should step up and help you extinguish the debt.

In the meantime, regardless of how your children respond, you should be examining current options and looking ahead to what your expenses will be when you finally need to retire and no longer earn $78,000 a year.

That means start figuring out how you might reposition your home equity by downsizing, renting or taking out a reverse mortgage home equity line of credit. Another option might be to take out a home equity line of credit and pay off all the debt. This would give you a lower interest rate and, most likely, an interest only loan for a period of time.

With limited home equity, modest Social Security benefits and no other savings, you might also consider personal bankruptcy--- or at least a visit to an attorney who specializes in bankruptcies. There is a point where bankruptcy is the only way. You aren’t there yet, but you would be if you were both on Social Security.