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If I go back to work, will my SSDI benefits end?

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Q:

If I go back to work, will my SSDI benefits end?

A:

The Social Security Administration (SSA) awards Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to claimants who they believe are disabled with a severe physical or mental impairment that does not allow the claimant to perform substantial gainful activity (SGA).

If you return to work and perform work that meets this threshold, eventually the SSA will terminate your SSDI disability benefits. With that said, however, it’s important to note that the SSA does have a specific program, referred to as the "trial work period," which allows claimants to attempt to return to work while continuing to receive SSDI benefits for a specified time period.

Below we will discuss what the SSA considers substantial gainful activity and how to return to work without jeopardizing your benefits under the trial work period.

What is substantial gainful activity?

The SSA defines substantial gainful activity as completing “significant physical or mental activities or a combination of both.” Consider, however, that work can be substantial even if it is performed on a part-time basis (i.e. volunteering 35 hours per week).

Work can also be gainful, which means you are working and earning $1,130 per month (non-blind) or $1,820 per month (blind). Consider, however, that you may also be performing gainful work if the SSA determines that the work is intended for profit (even if you are not making a profit), or that the work is generally done for pay or for profit.

Now, all that may sound a bit confusing, but it’s important to simply remember this: if you are receiving SSDI and you do too much work for too much money over an extended period of time, the SSA will eventually decide that you are not disabled. The amount you can earn and the time period in which you can earn it, however, is determined by the trial work period.

Trial Work Period and Returning to Work

The SSA wants to encourage you, if you are able, to return to full-time employment. With that in mind, they have developed the trial work period, a program that allows workers to test their ability to work without jeopardizing their benefits.

Before making any attempt to work, however, it is imperative that you contact the SSA and discuss your plans. Make sure that you understand how the trial work period works and what events will trigger a trial work month. Many claimants return to work without fully realizing the consequences and eventually lose their benefits.

How does the trial work period work?

Under the trial work period, you can test your ability to work for any nine-month period within a five-year window. If your gross earnings (prior to taxes) are greater than $810 (in 2016), this triggers a trial work month.

You may have nine trial work months within a five-year period without losing your SSDI benefits. Remember, however, that trial work months do not have to be consecutive. They could be at irregular intervals within this five-year time period.

If, during the five-year window, you use all nine of your trial work months, then the trial work period is officially over. What follows is called the Extended Period of Eligibility, and it lasts three years.

What is my Extended Period of Eligibility?

During the Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) you will continue to receive your SSDI benefits each month if your gross monthly earnings are less than the substantial gainful income limit outlined by the SSA for that year ($1,130 in 2016).

If at any time in this period your income reaches the SGA level, however, this will trigger a three-month grace period, which allows you to continue to receive your SSDI benefits, regardless of your income level.

If, after the grace period ends, you continue to receive income above the SGA level, you will not receive SSDI benefits. If your income is below the SGA level, however, you will receive your SSDI (although you may have to call the SSA to have the SSDI benefits reinstated).

After three years, when the Extended Period of Eligibility ends, if your income remains above the SGA limit, you will no longer receive SSDI. If your income is below the SGA limit, benefits will continue. If, however, your income vacillates above and below the limit and you lose your benefits, you will not have the ability to request an automatic reinstatement but will have to follow a more complicated process to reinstate your benefits.

Bottom line: Before returning to work, it’s important to talk to the SSA for details about the trial work period. Although the SSA encourages claimants to attempt to work through the trial work period program, if you do not understand what is allowed, you could jeopardize your SSDI payment.

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