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How Much Money Can You Make and Still Get Social Security Disability?

Breaking down the substantial gainful activity rule in SSDI claims

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is meant to provide replacement income for individuals who are unable to earn a living because of a qualifying medical condition. That said, some individuals who are on SSDI can still work, at least a little. Where does the government draw the line?

The short answer is, “It depends.” An experienced Social Security Disability attorney can analyze your situation and explain whether you qualify for SSDI. If you need help filing a claim or appealing a denied claim, our law firm can guide you forward.

What is “substantial gainful activity” (SGA), and how does it affect SSDI?

Substantial gainful activity refers to the ability to earn wages or profits by exerting significant physical or mental activity. Put another way, that means earnings from work, as opposed to passive or investment income.

Types of income that generally count for SGA purposes include:

  • Wages, whether you are paid on a salary, hourly, day-rate, or piece-rate basis,
  • Self-employment income, after deducting business expenses,
  • Royalties earned from creative work or intellectual property, and
  • Bonuses or commissions that reward job performance or productivity.

To qualify for SSDI in 2024, your earnings from these sources must be no more than $1,550 per month unless you are blind. Blind individuals have a significantly higher SGA limit: $2,590 per year. These limits increase every year.

Types of income that don’t count for SGA

Again, SGA is meant to measure your capacity to work and earn income. There are several types of income that are excluded or deducted from SGA calculations, including:

  • Unsuccessful work attempts (UWA): If you attempted to return to work but had to either stop or reduce your earnings below the SGA threshold because of your medical condition, the earnings from that time may not count toward SGA.
  • Veterans and other government benefits: Veterans’ disability and other types of non-Social Security government assistance do not count toward SGA.
  • Impairment-related work expenses (IWE), such as assistive devices and accessible transportation, and blind work expenses (BWE) for visually impaired workers, such as service animals.
  • Certain employer-provided benefits, such as employer assistance with counseling or therapy or other subsidies that exceed the actual value of your work activities.
  • Passive income from rental properties, investments, and other sources that do not require active physical or mental work.

Depending on the circumstances, there may be some dispute regarding whether certain types of income should or should not be included in your SGA. An experienced Social Security attorney can advocate for your best interests in this situation.

When is your income assessed for SSDI?

The Social Security Administration needs to consider your income and earning capacity when you initially apply for SSDI benefits. If your earnings from work are above the SGA threshold, your claim for benefits will almost certainly be denied.

In addition, once you are receiving benefits, the SSA will conduct continuing disability reviews (CDR) to determine whether you are still eligible. The frequency of CDRs depends on your medical condition, your age, and other relevant factors. Again, if the SSA determines that your earnings are too high during a CDR, you will likely lose your benefits.

SGA is also a factor in expedited reinstatement proceedings. If you lose your benefits for exceeding the SGA threshold, then your medical condition worsens within the next five years, you may be eligible to get your benefits resumed quickly without having to reapply.

How does the Social Security Administration assess your income for SGA?

There are several ways the SSA verifies income for people applying for and receiving SSDI. First, when you apply for disability benefits, you are required to self-report your income. While you are receiving benefits, you are likewise required to inform the SSA of any changes in your work activity or income, such as new employment, changes in hours, or changes in your hourly pay.

The SSA can also request information through a work activity report (Form SSA-821-BK). The SSA conducts ongoing reviews of people on SSDI to assess their work activities and earnings to determine their continued eligibility. In other words, if you are making too much to qualify for SSDI, the Social Security Administration is likely to find out sooner or later.

Remember, your SGA is based on your capacity to earn, not necessarily your actual earnings

Ultimately, your eligibility for SSDI is based on whether you can engage in substantial gainful activity. If you are actually earning more money than the SGA threshold, then that is clear evidence that you are able to work. But even if you are not currently making more than SGA, you may still be declared ineligible if the SSA determines that you could be earning more than the threshold.

There are several considerations that go into this analysis. First of all, if you are currently doing unpaid or volunteer work, but the same work could be done for pay, then the SSA is likely to take that into account when determining your earning capacity. Second, the SSA will look at the jobs you had prior to your disability and determine whether you are already trained and experienced to engage in the same or similar work. And especially if you are under age 50, the SSA will take into account the possibility of retraining to change careers. The closer you are to retirement age, though, the more lenient the SSA will be in that regard.

How an experienced attorney can help prove your eligibility for SSDI

Ultimately, whether you meet the criteria to qualify for SSDI is a question of fact, and the Social Security Administration will make that determination based on evidence.

Your attorney can help by gathering all the documents needed and correctly filling out the forms to put you in the best position to qualify for disability benefits.

If your initial claim is denied, your attorney can gather additional information for your request for reconsideration and, if necessary, represent your interests in hearings and appeals.

If you have any doubts about whether you will qualify for SSDI based on your earning capacity, talk to an experienced attorney from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano LLP about your rights and options. Contact us today for a free, confidential consultation.

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