Can you work while applying for, or receiving, disability?
Yes, you are allowed to work while receiving Social Security Disability or SSI, and you are allowed to work while having initiated applying for benefits. As long as you follow the rule set in place by Social Security for earned income.
What is the rule?
In the case of a pending claim, i.e. you have filed a disability application, you can do this as long as your earnings do not exceed the earnings threshold for the SGA limit. SGA stands for substantial gainful activity and it corresponds to a specific dollar amount that you cannot exceed.
Going over the limit means being denied
If your gross monthly earnings exceed this amount, you claim will be denied for SGA because it is the social security administration’s position that if you can make this amount you are not functionally limited enough to be considered disabled (to see the current SGA amount: the Social Security Disability and SSI earnings limit).
This is why we advise individuals who are trying to get their disability benefits to be very careful about engaging in work activity. That doesn’t change the fact that people who are disabled sometimes still have to make the attempt to work in order to keep their bills paid.
What if you try to work but it doesn’t “work out”?
Fortunately, Social Security has something called an unsuccessful work attempt. This is when a person goes back to work and is unable, because of their disability, to stay on the job for at least six months. However, even though UWA’s exist, if Social Security finds out you are working AND earning more than the SGA limit in effect for the given year, you will likely be given what is called a technical denial.
If you are already getting disability, Social Security will allow you to try working
If you are already receiving title 2 Social Security Disability benefits, SGA-level earnings are still an issue; however, SSA (the social security administration) does offer benefit recipients the opportunity to try working without necessarily giving up their benefits altogether.
Social Security has devised a trial work system that assumes that even though a person who is on disability may try to go back to working, this does not necessarily mean that they will be successful. In fact, they may attempt going back to a job only to find that their condition makes it impossible for them to stay engaged in work activity for very long.
How the trial work system works
The trial work system used by SSA is set up in this way: If a person who is receiving Social Security Disability benefits goes back to work, they may earn as much as they like, even going over the SGA limit that is in effect for the given year, for nine full months. For those nine trial work months, there is no limit to how much the recipient can earn. However, if the individual is exceeding the earnings limit (SGA) in the tenth month, their benefits will be stopped.
What if you go back to work for a number of months but do not earn over the SGA limit in all of those months? For a month to count as a trial work month, your earnings must be up to the SGA limit. If your earnings are not at least as much as SGA, the month will not count.
The nine trial work months do not have to be consecutive. Also, the total number of trial work months that are accumulated can occur anytime in a rolling 36 month period. All of this means that benefit recipients have a fair amount of flexibility to try various attempts at returning to work.
It is vital to notify Social Security when you attempt work to avoid overpayments
One of the most important things to keep in mind when receiving Social Security Disability benefits and attempting work activity is to keep the local social security office updated on any work that is engaged in. By informing the local office of work activity, they can track your use of trial work months. This can also help you to avoid going into a situation where you continue to receive benefits that you are not eligible for (for example, if you have used all your trial work months).
If you receive benefits for which you are not monetarily eligible, you will incur an overpayment that will need to be addressed by either seeking a waiver (under the assertion that you cannot repay the overpayment or that the overpayment was not your fault), or by working out a payment arrangement that typically involves having a portion of your monthly disability benefit deducted to repay the debt.
Trial work is only available for Social Security Disability, not SSI
If you are already receiving title 16 SSI disability benefits, there is no trial work period. Your eligibility for SSI will ultimately be subject to the SGA limit on how much you can earn; however, what you receive in SSI monthly benefits may also be reduced by a certain amount based on how much you are earning. Above a certain amount of earnings (which may change from year to year), SSA may deduct one dollar of SSI monthly benefits for every two dollars that are earned. Again, as with SSD, it is important to report work activity to avoid an overpayment and/or a cessation of monthly benefits.