No one wants to have to rely on disability benefits. Anyone who has established a work history sufficient to receive disability would rather be on a payroll than a disability role. So it’s natural to think about and desire a return to work. But how and when a person returns to work is a crucial question.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has established rules concerning working while getting disability and like many other SSA rules, they can be confusing. There are also guidelines and directives beyond what the basic SSA pamphlets contain.
The basic rules are found in SSA publication No. 05-10095. The first part of the work rules are the trial work period and it is a test of your ability to work for at least nine months. A person can get full Social Security benefits no matter how much he or she earns as long as the earnings are reported.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of reporting all earnings to the Social Security Administration. While it may be obvious that any and all earnings paid using a person’s Social Security number are easily traceable by the Social Security Administration, it is also possible for cash earnings to find their way to the earnings statement of the Social Security claimant or recipient. Not only are cash or “under the table” payments considered earnings under the Social Security regulations, but in-kind payments are also deemed to be earnings. In-kind earnings are reimbursements, services, loan forgiveness or anything that one would normally consider as having cash value or that could be thought of as payment for services rendered.
Failure to report these earnings could result in a finding of not disabled or some other unwanted complication in dealing with the Social Security Administration. Complications could include a reduction in benefit payments or a possible fraud investigation by either the Social Security Administration or the state Disability Determination office. We provide these warnings to remind applicants and those already receiving benefits that the Social Security Administration is not to be trifled with when it comes to reporting earnings. Those of us who have practiced in this area for years have seen many people who have found themselves in trouble after “just trying to earn a few extra dollars.”
A trial work period is considered as any month in which total earnings are greater than $810 per month. The nine months don’t have to be consecutive but must occur in a rolling 60-month period.
Because the rules can be confusing, you should definitely consult a disability advocate before working in Philadelphia while on Social Security disability
If you have a pending application for disability benefits the rules are different. A person with a pending application for benefits can earn only to the SSA amount of what is called substantial gainful activity or SGA. The substantial gainful activity amount in 2016 is $1,130. However, any disability advocate would counsel against an applicant earning anywhere near this amount while her application for disability is pending. The dollar amount for substantial gainful activity is a clear line that once crossed means you can’t be found disabled. However, experience shows that applicants who are close to that amount will have their claims examined with greater scrutiny and are more likely to have those claims denied.
What happens when a person earns less than $810 per month? These earnings are not considered to be part of a trial work period but must be reported and may be considered by the Social Security Administration as evidence of some ability to do substantial gainful activity.
There are circumstances and conditions when a trial work period is warranted. The first thing to consider is, “What is the long term goal of the trial work period?” Does the applicant truly envision a return to work or is the goal to fill a short-term financial need? In making that decision, it is necessary to review the rules concerning the nine month work period. Nine months are a very short period of time compared to a 60 month time frame that is allowed for the nine months of trial work.
Another way to deal with a trial work period is to document exactly what type of work the applicant is doing. If the nature of the work, lifting requirements, sitting-standing, interaction with the public, etc., demonstrate an ability to return to full-time substantial gainful activity, then this could present a problem for the applicant. The applicant should document any special accommodations needed or made. Since many claims are scheduled for periodic review of continuing disability, it is a good idea to keep a diary of how the applicant actually made it through the workday during the trial work period and any other work efforts.