Many beneficiaries of Social Security Disability (SSDI) are reluctant to pursue working due to fear that any income received will jeopardize their benefits. This reticence is perfectly understandable; however, the Social Security Administration has specially designed rules that will allow a disability benefit recipient to retain their payments while they attempt to return to work. It is a good idea to fully review the rules prior to accepting employment.
The 9 Month Trial Work Period (TWP)
The 9 month Trial Work Period (“TWP”) is designed to allow SSDI recipients to try working while still receiving their full monthly benefit. This is a 9 month period that is not necessarily consecutive, and can span a 5 year period. During these nine months, a person may earn an unlimited amount without losing or reducing their monthly cash benefit. The purpose of the TWP is to encourage disability recipients to go back to work when they can.
A TWP month is triggered whenever an individual earns more than $770 per month or when a self-employed individual works 80 hours in a month.
During your TWP, it is important to inform your local Social Security field office of your earnings for each month that you work. It is helpful to either visit the office in person, and have your earnings record copied and time stamped as proof of delivery. In the alternative, you may send your pay stubs via certified mail before the 10th day of month after the month in which you had earnings.
The Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE)
Once you’ve exhausted your 9 month TWP, the Extended Period of Eligibility (“EPE”) begins. The EPE is a 36 consecutive month period during which you’ll continue to receive your full benefit every month so long as you remain disabled and earn less than Social Security’s Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) threshold. In 2014, the SGA level is $1,070 for non-blind individuals and $1,800 for the blind.
If you earn over SGA in any month during the EPE, you’ll lose that month’s benefit, and it will also cause Social Security to find that your disability has “ceased.” Once that happens, you will be paid in full for that month and an additional two-month grace period before your benefits stop.
If you stop working, or your earnings fall below SGA again during the EPE, contact Social Security and your benefits will be reinstated without having to file a new application. When the 36-month re-entitlement period ends, your benefits will continue as long as you are medically disabled and not earning SGA. If you earn over SGA for even one month after the 36-month period of re-entitlement, your benefits will terminate. However, if your medical condition makes you stop working again, you may be eligible for “expedited reinstatement” of your benefits if it’s within five years of the end of your EPE.
Impairment Related Work Expenses(“IRWEs”)
All of your monthly pre-tax earnings are applied to the TWP income threshold, but you may deduct any impairment-related work expenses that you pay for out-of-pocket. An IRWE is anything impairment-related that you require to enable you to work. This includes special equipment or medical supplies needed for mobility or transportation, or service-animal related expenses. Be certain to keep all receipts of your impairment-related expenses for submission to Social Security so that your earnings are properly calculated.
Work and Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR)
Many disability beneficiaries also worry that attempting to work will lead to their benefits being terminated through a Continuing Disability Review (“CDR”). However, CDRs are generally conducted randomly by Social Security. While it’s possible for a CDR to occur during a Trial Work Period (or at any other time), a TWP by itself is not likely to raise a red flag with Social Security. If you do have a review, Social Security will look at your medical records, not your attempt at working, to determine if you are still disabled.
The Ticket to Work Program
If you’re an SSDI recipient wanting to work but unable to perform any of your past jobs, you may be eligible for free vocational rehabilitation or technical training through SSA’s Ticket to Work program. Those participating in Ticket to Work will be evaluated at a vocational rehabilitation office, and a plan will be developed for the individual to try to return to the workforce. As an added incentive, Social Security agrees to not initiate a Continuing Disability Review of an individual in the Ticket to Work program.