Whether you’re applying for disability benefits or already receiving them, working can be risky. Work too much, or make too much money, and you may indicate to the government that you no longer need benefits.
In the eyes of the Social Security Administration (SSA), disability benefits are reserved for those who are too sick or too injured to support themselves through work. If you’re able to work enough to make a significant amount of money each month, you would not be classified (legally) as disabled.
Still, if you provide the right information to the SSA, working part-time may be an option. In this article, we’ll cover the work limitations you should be aware of and the steps you should take to ensure your income doesn’t jeopardize your benefits.
The rules here do vary pretty drastically depending on what disability benefits program you qualify (or hope to qualify) for. Let's break everything you need to know about working on SSDI or SSI.
Work limitations on SSDI: Substantial and Gainful Activity (SGA)
When you qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance, the Social Security Administration needs to know you’re not doing “substantial and gainful activity.” Let’s explore what those mean:
Substantial means working the same or close to the same amount as you would be if you weren’t disabled.
Gainful is a way of describing how much money you’re making no matter how much time you spend working. It involves making enough money to support yourself without social security benefits.
The SSA needs to know that you can’t work in substantial or gainful ways. If you can, your application will not be approved when you apply. If, over time, your ability to work improves and you’re found to be able to work in a substantial or gainful way, the SSA will transition you off of Social Security Disability benefits.
How much counts as substantial and gainful?
Your SGA income is calculated from the money you makefrom workthat you pay taxes on. There are different limits on what you can make each month for blind and non-blind people.
In 2023, the monthly maximum you can make while receiving social security benefits as a non-blind person is $1,470 per month gross income. Blind people can make up to $2,460 per month gross income and keep getting their disability payments.
Something to keep in mind here is the difference between gross income and net income, likely something you’ve seen on your paychecks before.
Gross income is the amount that you get paid before anything — like employment insurance or taxes — gets taken off your paycheck.
Net income is the amount that actually hits your bank account after taxes. The SSA is concerned about the amount you make before tax, not after.
A word of caution if you are applying for benefits. If you’re making close to the $1,470 limit, it could hurt your case.
Can I make “passive” (non-work) income without jeopardizing my SSDI benefits? How much counts as substantial and gainful?
You can make a substantial amount of money without working and still qualify for SSDI.
For example, you can be a landlord (assuming it’s passive income, and you’re not also functioning as a super or office manager) or profit off of the stock market. But if you are gaining your income from work and working a significant amount of hours—that’s SGA, and you may no longer qualify as disabled.
A few additional income sources that are NOT counted as SGA and will not impact your benefits:
Your spouse's income
The home you live in
Your car and other possessions (like a wedding band, furniture, clothing, food, etc.)
Income and asset limits on SSI
Because Supplemental Security Income is based on financial need rather than work history, it has different rules regarding income and qualifications.
To qualify or stay qualified for SSI, you have to have LESS than $2,000 in resources and make LESS than $914 per month. If working puts you over these limits, your benefits are at risk.
Here are the main things that will be counted as resources for you if you apply for SSI:
Investment accounts, stocks, bonds
Land (you don’t live on)
Life insurance with a payout amount over $1,500
Anything that could be sold for cash and used for essential resources
Passive income — this means money coming from family or friends, whether that be cash or help with bill payments, rent, etc.
A vacation home or second property
A second car
An RV or boat for recreational use
Things that will not be counted as income or assets:
The home you live in and the land it rests on
Your first vehicle
Your household goods and possessions (wedding band, furniture, clothing, food, etc.)
Think about it this way — do you need something as a part of your daily life, or is it a perk? If it’s a perk, chances are it will be considered an asset and will not be exempt.
It’s good to get familiar with the general rules of your social security program. However, it’s a lot to learn all at one time. You don’t need to remember everything from this one article. Your Atticus expert will give you more personalized details so that you’re confident you know how to qualify for and keep your benefits.
What if I'm already getting benefits and start working?
You’ll be assigned an SSA caseworker when you start with Social Security. This person will help guide you through the ins and outs of how SSA works and help support you.
It’s important to talk to your caseworker about returning to work so that they can provide resources and ensure that you know how to properly report any income so that your benefits keep coming.
One of the resources that your caseworker will tell you about when the time comes is called the Ticket to Work (Ticket) program. The Ticket program provides opportunities like career counseling, work training, and job placement. Talk to your caseworker about Ticket to Work if you’re thinking about going back to work but aren’t sure where to start looking or what you might be great at now.
What if I try to work, but I can't continue?
When you test the waters to see if you can either return to work at your old job or try something new, it’s called a trial work period (TWP).
A few things are important to consider about a TWP:
A TWP is only an option if you are on SSDI, not SSI.
If you make over $970 in one month, it counts as a month of work under your TWP.
Your SSDI benefits will not change until you complete nine months of work over 60 months.
It might sound like there are a lot of rules and details to do with working when you’re on Social Security Disability. In some ways, there are, but once you get to know the rules for the program you’re in, whether SSDI or SSI, it will seem much more straightforward.
Learning from this article is a great start—when you contact Atticus, we’ll give you more information and help you become even more clear on what you can and can’t do while on disability. This way, you’ll be able to focus on your health and return to work in a job that can support your life and well-being.
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Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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