Can You Work While Receiving Disability Benefits?

by Jennifer Scherf

Many people believe that you cannot work if you are receiving disability benefits.  To the contrary, the Social Security Administration (SSA) encourages people to attempt to achieve gainful employment both during the application process as well as after benefits are awarded.

Work done while receiving disability benefits can be divided into two categories:

  1. Short term work = Trial Work Period; or
  2. Long term work = Under SGA*

Trial Work Period

All individuals who are approved for disability are entitled to a nine-month trial work period in which they are able to earn whatever they can for nine months without it affecting their ability to receive their monthly Social Security disability benefits. You must inform SSA immediately that you are attempting to return to work so that it can then monitor your work activity. An error that many people make is not informing SSA of work done while receiving disability benefits. This mistake could result in you owing back some of the money you received from SSA if you exceed the allowed work activity.

These nine months of unlimited earnings do not have to be consecutive; they can occur anytime in a five-year period. If you continue to work beyond the ninth month, however, your benefits will be suspended and your extended period of eligibility begins.**

Working Under SGA

There are two types of disability programs — Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). People receiving SSDI receive their full retirement amount when they are found disabled. This program is for people who have worked and had FICA taxes taken out of their pay. To qualify, you must have earned over $9,000 per year for approximately five out of the last 10 years. Income is not factored into whether or not you qualify for SSDI.

By contrast, SSI is a needs-based program. In addition to proving you are disabled as that term is defined by SSA, you must also meet the income requirements to receive this benefit.***

The idea of working under SGA primarily applies only to those receiving SSDI benefits. People receiving SSI benefits must be mindful that the amount of money they can earn or receive as nonearnings and still receive benefits is different.

* (SGA) The general rule is that if you are able to engage in Substantial Gainful Activity, you are not disabled. Substantial Gainful Activity is determined by a two-prong test.

  • Substantial = more than 20 hours per week
  • Gainful = more than $960 per month****

**Extended Period of Disability (EPD) is a 36-month time frame after you exceed the trial work period when your benefits can restart if you suddenly become unable to continue working. After the EPD is over, you must reapply if you wish to go back on disability.

Additional details can be found online at www.ssa.gov or www.socialsecurityjustice.com.

****This amount is determined by SSA and can change year to year.

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