If I am on Social Security Disability, can I lose my disability benefits at some point?
There are a couple of things that could cause your disability benefits to be suspended or even terminated. The two most common causes of Social Security Disability termination are work activity and medical improvement. What do we mean by this? If you work and earn more than the allowable limit for earned income while receiving disability, or if your case is reviewed and the medical records show that your condition has improved, you can lose your disability benefits.
How does Social Security monitor your earnings or medical condition? Naturally, Social Security must have a process to determine if you have had any medical improvement and if you remain unable to perform substantial gainful activity.
Social Security uses periodic continuing disability reviews (CDR) to evaluate both medical improvement and work activity. In terms of work and earnings, both SSD and SSI are based upon the premise that your residual functional capacity (what you are able to do with the limitations of your disabling condition) will be so diminished that you will not be able to earn what SSA considers to be a substantial income. So if your income goes above the SGA limit, your disability benefits can be ceased.
Likewise, if a review shows that your condition has improved, regardless of whether you are working or not, you can have your disability benefits stopped. Termination due to medical improvement is somewhat self-explanatory. Social Security gathers the medical records from the medical sources you provide for your continuing disability review; if your medical records indicate that your disabling condition has improved to the point that you are no longer disabled under Social Security rules and guidelines, your disability benefits might be terminated due to medical improvement.
Losing your disability due to working and earning more than the allowed limit is much more tricky.
Work activity and being taken off benefits
After you win your disability, if you wish to get back to work, Social Security provides avenues that allow you to attempt work activity without losing your disability eligibility. For instance, you have nine trial work months in which Social Security allows you to earn any amount of money without it affecting your disability benefit eligibility.
The trick to the nine month trial work period is that the months do not have to be consecutive and can occur any time in a five year period. If you are performing substantial work activity in the tenth month, your disability benefits will be suspended and you begin an extended period of eligibility, or EPE.
The EPE begins with your tenth month of SGA-level job earnings (see the definition link in the second paragraph above). During the thirty-six month period, you can start your disability benefits any time that you stop working or are no longer performing work activity at the SGA earnings level without any question.
However, if you work and have earnings up to the SGA income limit after the thirty-six month of the EPE, your disability benefits will be terminated. If you are able to perform substantial gainful work activity in spite of your disabling condition, why should you be receiving disability benefits?
While there is a chance that your disability benefits may be terminated during your continuing disability review, it is unlikely. The vast majority of disability beneficiaries receive Social Security Disability benefits until they convert to full retirement benefit, go back to work, or their death.
About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.
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