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What you need to know about returning to work and SSDI

By Advocator February 4, 2016

It’s no secret that the Social Security Disability (SSDI) process is complicated, and there are a lot of important dates and regulations to keep in mind. One of the most important, yet often least understood, components of the SSDI process is if and how an individual collecting SSDI can re-enter the workforce.

In order to be considered “disabled” under Social Security’s rules, you must have a medical condition that has prevented you from working or is expected to prevent you from working for at least 12 months or end in death.

If you return to work before the full 12 months and are earning over a certain monthly amount ($1,130 in 2016, or $1,820 for blind individuals), you are not eligible for SSDI benefits. Earning more than the monthly threshold is considered “substantial gainful activity” or SGA. If you are self-employed, the amount of work done will also be considered, not just the amount earned. However, if you make the attempt and are unable to consistently maintain the work activity for less than 6 months, the work activity may be considered an unsuccessful return to work attempt.

If, because of your disabling condition, you are unable to earn more than the monthly substantial activity amount in gross earnings, you may still be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits but it is important to keep the Social Security Administration updated regarding all work activity. Additionally, if you return to work and make over the SGA amount in gross earnings but you have already been out of work for 12 months or longer because of an illness or injury, you could be eligible for what’s called a closed period of benefits. This means you could be awarded benefits for the period of time you were unable to work.

Social Security recognizes that all situations are different, and so SSDI recipients are allowed a trial work period if they’ve already been awarded benefits. This allows you to test your ability to work for 9 months while you still receive your SSDI benefit regardless of how high your earnings are as long as you report your work activity and still have a disabling impairment. You would still receive your full SSDI benefit during this time as long as you have reported your work activity to Social Security. The 9 months do not have to be consecutive and they consider a trial work month of working to be any month where you are earning over a certain monthly limit ($810 in 2016).

After you complete your trial work period, you enter an extended period of eligibility. The first 36 months of the extended period of eligibility is the re-entitlement period. During the re-entitlement period, you get benefits for all months your earnings or work activities are below the SGA level as long as you continue to have the disabling impairment. Cash benefits are suspended for any month your earnings are over the SGA level. If your earnings fall below the SGA level during the re-entitlement period, your benefits will start again. Your benefits will end if you work above SGA after the 36-month re-entitlement period. However, you may receive expedited reinstatement if you stop work within the next 5 years.

Expedited reinstatement is a safety net for people who successfully return to work and lose their entitlement to Social Security benefits. If your benefits ended because of your work and earnings, and you become unable to work again because of the same or a similar disabling condition, your benefits can be restarted without the need to file a new application.

Recently passed legislation has changed the trial work period but has not yet been implemented. This new demonstration product, known as the “Promoting opportunity offset demonstration project”, would offset $1.00 in benefits for every $2.00 in earnings if their work exceeded SGA in that month. Once an individual’s benefits were fully offset, their benefits would end, but Medicare coverage would continue for 93 months.

If you return to work, even under SGA, it is your responsibility to make sure Social Security is updated accordingly.

If you have questions about this don’t hesitate to let us know! We are here to guide you through each step of your SSDI process and the decisions you may need to make beyond your SSDI award.


Nothing in this post is intended as advice or a suggestion to elect or not elect to claim benefits of any kind, including Social Security benefits, nor is it intended as financial advice in any way.  The decision to claim benefits is a personal one that is contingent upon each individual’s unique circumstances.

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