Federal law defines disability as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), SGA is generally defined as work that generates a certain amount of income per month. In 2021, that amount is $1,310 for non-blind disabled applicants and $2,190 for blind applicants. An individual who generates more income than the SGA limits will likely be ineligible for Social Security Disability benefits. However, there are exceptions to this rule:
Trial Work Period
To be eligible for disability benefits, your injury must be expected to keep you from working for at least one year. After becoming disabled, it is often difficult to know whether you will be able to return to work. To help disability applicants determine whether they will be able to return to work, the SSA will allow disability applicants to engage in a work trial period for nine months. During this time, you can receive disability benefits in full, regardless of how much income you make.
According to 2021 standards, any month that you earn at least $940 counts as a trial month. Similarly, if you are self-employed, any month where you work more than 80 hours (or earn more than $940) is considered a trial work month. Your trial period will continue until you’ve worked nine months within a rolling 60-month timeframe. The trial months do not need to be consecutive. If you earn more than $940 for more than 9 months within a 5-year period, your disability will be deemed to have ended and your benefits will stop.
Extended Period of Eligibility
Once you have completed your trial work period, the SSA does provide resources in the event that you are still unable to consistently work. You can receive Social Security Disability benefits for any month where your earnings fall below the SGA amount, within a 36-month window following the completion of your trial period. This is referred to as an extended period of eligibility.
Following your trial work period, if your Social Security Disability payments stop because your income exceeds the SGA amount, you still have a five-year period in which you can re-start your benefits without filing a new disability application. This is known as expedited reinstatement and can save you significant time should your condition worsen—or if you become re-injured—in the future.
Offset your Earnings with Expenses
If you are consistently earning more than the SGA limit, it is very possible that you are ineligible for disability benefits. However, the SSA will deduct certain disability-related expenses, potentially allowing your overall income to fall below the SGA threshold. Depending on your unique situation, certain activities or expenses could be deducted to help your income remain below the SGA threshold.
Notably, these rules apply to persons who are disabled by impairments other than statutory blindness; special rules apply to blind beneficiaries.
By: Devon Brady of Premier Disability Services, LLC®