To become eligible for Social Security disability benefits, you must be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. However, you may be able to earn a small amount of income while receiving Social Security disability payments.
"It is possible to qualify for Social Security disability benefits and still work in a limited capacity," says Nick Ortiz, a board-certified Social Security disability attorney and owner of Ortiz Law Firm in Pensacola, Florida. "Social Security has special rules for work activity called work incentives."
To make the most of your benefits and job opportunities, it can be helpful to know what's available. Read on for a look at what's involved with Social Security disability benefits, as well as the rules related to working while receiving benefits.
How to Know if You Are Eligible for Social Security Disability Benefits
If you don't currently receive benefits for being disabled, but want to apply for them, start by reviewing your last paychecks. To be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, you'll need to make $1,220 or less per month in 2019. If you're blind, the limit is $2,040. This amount is known as "substantial gainful activity," and is adjusted each year. "If an individual is engaging in SGA, then they are not disabled," says Andrew November, a disability lawyer at Liner Legal in Cleveland. "It's a line in the sand, broadly speaking." If you're self-employed, you might not receive a steady paycheck. You'll need to go through several income-related tests to determine if you are eligible to receive the benefits.
To qualify for disability benefits, your condition must limit your ability to do basic activities such as lifting, walking or remembering for at least 12 months. The Social Security Administration has a list of medical conditions it considers significantly disabling, but also considers claims for other conditions. "Have a long talk with your primary care physician or specialist," November says. You can discuss how your disability impacts your ability to work. Your doctor might then write a letter on your behalf to explain your situation and the need for benefits.
To apply for benefits, you can fill out an application online or call or visit a Social Security office in your area.
Working While Receiving Social Security Disability Benefits
After you start receiving Social Security disability benefits, you may be able to continue working in some form. Again, you'll need to keep a careful eye on your earnings. If you receive less than $880 per month from your job, your benefits are likely to continue.
Notably, if you spend money on job-related activities because of your disability, you might be able to subtract the amount from your monthly income. "You can deduct impairment-related work expenses from that total," says Danielle Kunkle Roberts, co-owner of Boomer Benefits in Fort Worth, Texas. For example, if you need to take a taxi instead of public transportation to get to your job, you might be able to deduct those expenses from your income. Other expenses could include special medical equipment you have to purchase on your own or counseling services.
You'll need to report work-related information regularly to the Social Security Administration, including start and stop dates for a job, changes in duties and hours worked. You'll also have to report your monthly wages and work-related expenses due to your disability.
What the Trial Work Period Means
If your monthly income (after deducting disability-related expenses) is $880 per month or more, your benefit situation could change. "If the amount earned in a month is between $880 and $1,220, then Social Security will evaluate the claim under its 'trial work period' rules and regulations," Ortiz says.
This trial work period is designed to help you test your ability to work. "Social Security wants to encourage beneficiaries to return to work when they can," Ortiz says. During the trial work period, your full benefits will continue, even if your monthly total earnings are more than $880. You'll need to keep reporting your work-related income and continue to have a disability to maintain benefits.
The trial work period continues until you have earned $880 or more for nine months during a 60-month timeframe. It is important to note that these months do not have to be consecutive. "If earnings are less than $880, then the trial work period is not triggered," Ortiz says. "Even if the earnings do exceed $880 in any given month, it will not be considered as showing that the disability has ended, so long as the beneficiary does not exceed $880 in one month more than nine times in a 60-month period."
What Happens After the Trial Work Period
Once your earnings are higher than $880 for nine months during a 60-month period, the Social Security Administration will review your income record. If your average earnings during the trial work period hit or surpassed the substantial gainful activity threshold of $1,220 for 2019 ($2,040 for the blind), your benefits will likely stop. But if your average earnings during the trial work period were below that amount, your benefits will continue.
If you are able to work while continuing to receive benefits, you can enter what is known as an extended period of eligibility. This is another way to help you further test your working abilities while receiving benefits. After your trial work period, you have 36 months during which you can receive benefits for any month your earnings fall below the substantial gainful activity threshold.
Keep in mind that even if your benefits end due to continued employment, they can be reinstated during a period when your disability makes you unable to work. This is referred to as expedited reinstatement. You'll have five years after your benefits stop to ask to have benefits begin again because of your inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.
Free Services to Help You Work While on Disability Benefits
Social Security has a program called Ticket to Work designed to help disabled individuals who want to pursue a career and become financially independent. "If a beneficiary is contemplating a return to work, then he or she should seriously consider participating in Social Security's Ticket to Work program," Ortiz says. It's a free and voluntary program, and more information on the services it provides can be found at ChooseWork.ssa.gov.
It can also be helpful to talk through your situation on a one-to-one basis. "If people are going to return to work, really work with an individual and determine if you can," November says. Look for a community work incentive coordinator in your area to discuss your working options and benefits. You can call 866-968-7842 to find the nearest community work incentive coordinator.