Social Security Disability Benefits and Work

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) pays a monthly benefit to individuals who have accumulated Social Security work credits but then become disabled. A person who receives SSDI is allowed to earn income and still collect a disability benefit. But, the definition of disability for purposes of SSDI is based on a person’s ability to earn income through work. A person who earns in excess of the “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) amount, which changes each year, is not considered to be disabled for purposes of the SSDI program and cannot receive SSDI benefits or Medicare (if under age 65). The SGA amount for 2015 is $1090 (for historical SGA amounts, see the Social Security Administration’s SGA page.

When a person who is receiving SSDI continues to work, the SSA looks at the amount of income earned through that work each month. If a recipient earns above the “trial work period” (TWP) amount in any month, that month is counted as part of a nine month trial work period. The months need not be consecutive–essentially, the SSDI beneficiary may earn more than the trial work period amount ($780 in 2015) for a total of nine months after she has been found to be disabled and entitled to SSDI and her benefits will not be affected. The TWP monthly amount changes each year–for historical TWPs, see the Social Security Administration’s TWP page.

After nine months in which the recipient’s earnings exceed the TWP, the SSDI beneficiary will have a three year “extended eligibility period”. During those three years, SSDI benefits will be paid in any month that the beneficiary’s total monthly earnings are less than the SGA amount for the year, but will not be paid in months where earnings exceed the SGA limit. The three year extended eligibility period starts one month after the TWP ends, and goes for at least three years irrespective of the SSDI recipient’s monthly earnings.

Once this extended eligibility period is over, though, things change. If the recipient’s earnings exceed the SGA for even one month, the recipient is no longer considered to be disabled, and SSDI eligibility will terminate. The Social Security Administration gives the beneficiary a two month additional grace period during which it will pay benefits, but after that, any SSDI payments made will cause an overpayment that will have to be repaid to the federal government. Because the SSA doesn’t review earnings regularly every month, but only at widely spaced intervals, it’s possible to accumulate a large overpayment without even knowing it. Eventually, though, the SSA will realize that it has been paying benefits in error, and it will send a notice demanding repayment. A beneficiary who loses eligibility due to excess earnings above the SGA must reapply to the program, and this process can take many months to re-establish eligibility

Persons on SSDI who need to keep their disability benefit so that they can continue to receive Medicare coverage must be careful never to exceed the SGA amount when continuing to work. To determine if you have completed your nine month TWP and/or your three year extended eligibility period, log in to My Social Security, and look at your earnings record.
For more information, visit Disability.gov, How Will Working Affect My Disability Benefits?