This is a question we hear all the time at our office. The answer is (as it often is with matters concerning the Social Security Administration) it depends and it’s complicated. But let’s try to uncomplicate this situation and lay out some guidelines.
Generally, you cannot draw Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits if you are engaged in “substantial gainful activity”. SSA defines “substantial gainful activity” as any job — full or part time — in which you earn more than $1,170 per month in 2017 ($1,950 per month if you are blind). If your gross monthly earnings exceed this amount, your benefits will be taken away, because it is the Social Security Administration’s position that if you can make over this minimal amount of money you are not functionally limited enough to be considered disabled.
Because this income cutoff also applies to persons who are applying for benefits, does it mean you can do some work while you are waiting for your case to be decided? Technically, yes, but bear in mind that when Social Security sees you are able to perform some work they may not believe you are as disabled as you claim.
If you are receiving disability benefits, but your condition has improved and you would like to try working again, there is some good news. To encourage individuals to go back to work SSA has work incentives which make it possible to earn more than the “substantial gainful activity” limits and still receive monthly disability payments for a period of time. In addition to the continuation of disability benefits, the work incentives include continued Medicare or Medicaid while you work; and help with education, training, and rehabilitation to start a new line of work. If you later find you cannot continue working after SSA ends your disability payments, you have up to five years in which you will not have to file a new application to restart your benefits.
Social Security allows for a trial work period where you can work for at least nine months to test your ability to work with no reduction in your benefits regardless of how much money you make. But you must report the work activity to SSA and continue to have a disabling impairment.
In 2017 for a month to count as a trial work month, your earnings must be $840 or more. If your gross earnings in any month fall below this amount the month will not count as part of the trial work period. The nine trial work months do not have to be consecutive. According to SSA, “The trial work period continues until you have worked nine months within a 60-month period.”
After your trial work period, there is an extended period of eligibility where you have 36 months during which you can work and still receive benefits for any month your earnings are not “substantial” (that is, $1,170 or $1,950 if you are blind). No new application or disability decision is needed for you to receive Social Security disability benefits during this period.
All of this means that benefit recipients have a fair amount of flexibility to try returning to work. However, remember that it is critically important to notify SSA promptly when you start or stop working, or if any other change occurs which could affect your benefits.
Please keep in mind that this article covers only the general guidelines regarding working and disability. We encourage you to contact Cuddigan Law if your disability case is pending and you return to work or to contact Social Security if you are receiving disability benefits and return to work.