Working While on Social Security Disability

Doug Mann

Social Security disability (SSDI) is intended to help people who are unable to earn a living, so you might reasonably assume that you can’t work at all while you’re receiving SSDI. But, the standard for SSDI isn’t whether you can work at all, but whether you are able to engage in “substantial gainful activity” (SGA).

Working While on Social Security Disability
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Table of Contents
  1. Trial Work Periods for SSDI Recipients
  2. Working While on SSI
  3. Qualifying for SSDI

There are actually two different ways you may be able to earn some income while on Social Security disability. The first, and simplest, is that you can generally earn a small amount of income each month without it impacting your benefits. That number changes from year to year. In 2023, it is less than $1,050 in a given month.

Three important things to know:

  • Income is counted based on the month in which it was earned, not the month when you were paid. For example, if you worked the third and fourth week of January and got paid for the third week on January 30 and the fourth week on February 6, both checks would count toward January earnings.
  • The limit is for gross income, not after-tax income.
  • You must report any earnings while on SSDI to the Social Security Administration (SSA), even if your earnings are below the threshold to trigger a trial work period or count as a service month.

The second way an SSDI recipient can work and continue to collect benefits–at least, for a time–is with trial work periods.

Trial Work Periods for SSDI Recipients

If you can work, the SSA would prefer that you do. But, attempting a return to work can feel risky. No one who is dependent on disability benefits wants to lose benefits and then find that they can’t continue working.

Trial work periods give you a chance to try out working while retaining your SSDI benefits and Medicare coverage. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Any month in which you have gross earnings of $1,050 or more counts as a “service month”
  • If you have nine service months in a 60-month period, you will have successfully completed a trial work period and will enter a transitional period
  • Until you reach nine service months in a 60-month period, you will continue to receive benefits as usual, no matter how much you earn in a given month

What Happens When You Complete a Trial Work Period?

When you successfully complete a trial work period, you don’t just get kicked off of SSDI. Instead, you enter a 36-month transitional period called the “extended period of eligibility.” During this extended period, you can continue to work and receive benefits. But, there are two requirements.

First, as you might expect, you can only continue to receive SSDI benefits for as long as the disabling condition persists. If you are no longer disabled, you are no longer entitled to benefits. Second, your monthly gross earnings must be less than the amount the SSA has deemed substantial gainful activity. In 2023, that amount is $1,470/month.

During your trial work period, you could earn more than the SGA cutoff and continue to receive benefits. But, once you’re in the extended period of eligibility, exceeding the SGA threshold in a single month is sufficient to terminate benefits.

Special Considerations about Working While on SSDI

While monthly earnings are the main and most common measure for whether you are engaged in substantial gainful activity, note that there are situations in which a person with lower earnings may be deemed to be engaged in SGA. For example, if you are self-employed and work long hours in your own business, you may be considered to be engaging in SGA even if your profits are below the limit.

Working While on SSI

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is different from SSDI. One key difference is that SSI is need-based, while SSDI is not. That means that any income you have can impact your eligibility for SSI or the amount you receive, whether that income is earned or not. 

The SSI calculations are very different from the SSDI eligibility math. Partly, that’s because SSI considers more types of income, including payments from a trust, pensions and other retirement benefits, rental income, and even in-kind “income” such as free housing provided by a family member. Partly, it’s because the SSA doesn’t consider all income. Instead, eligibility is based on “countable income.” And, while most other types of income are countable (except the first $20), treatment of earned income is much more generous. The first $65 is disregarded, and then 50% of the remainder. So, in 2023, an individual whose income is all unearned will be ineligible if they have income of $934/month or more. But, if all of the income is from work or self-employment, that number increases to $1,913/month.

SSI recipients may also establish a plan to achieve self-support (PASS). When you’re in a plan, you can use some income and resources that might otherwise disqualify you for expenses related to preparing for a job or starting a business.

Qualifying for SSDI

It’s important to note that the initial eligibility requirements are different from the month-to-month figures for someone who has been approved for Social Security disability.  Original qualification for SSDI benefits requires gross earnings of less than the SGA figure–$1,470 in 2023. 

Of course, that’s just one eligibility requirement. The application process for SSDI can be complicated, and most applications are initially denied. Whether you are just applying for Social Security disability or have been denied and want to appeal, an experienced Social Security disability attorney can be your best resource. To learn more, call 937-222-2222 or fill out the contact form on this site.

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