What Happens to Your Social Security Disability Benefits If You Can Go Back to Work

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2015 AARP

If you’ve been approved for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration has determined that you can do little or no work. But in some cases, such as if your condition improves, you may be able to reenter the workforce after starting disability. The SSA encourages such a transition by offering certain incentives:

  • Trial work period: You’re allowed nine months to earn money with no income limit, provided you report earnings above a certain level to the SSA and still have a serious impairment. The monthly level rises over time. (It was set at $770 for wage earners in 2014; the self‐employed were expected to report if they earned that much or spent more than 80 hours per month on their business.) The nine months don’t have to come in a row; they’re counted within a five‐year period.

  • Deductible expenses: Certain expenses you may need to work, such as a taxi, attendant care, and home modifications, may be deducted from your monthly earnings. This can make it easier to stay eligible for benefits and keep income below the level deemed “substantial.” The SSA also may reduce the earnings amount for work performed under “special conditions,” such as if you require extra supervision.

  • Extended eligibility: If your nine‐month trial concludes and you stop getting disability, benefits may still kick in for any months in which you earn below a certain amount. This amount was set at $1,090 per month for 2015 ($1,820 for people who are blind). This period of extended eligibility lasts for three years after the end of the trial work period. Ifyou’re in the period of extended eligibility, and you earn over the limit, the SSA allows you three months of benefits before cutting you off.

  • Possible continuation of benefits: If the SSA cuts you off because of high earnings, but your condition later makes it impossible to keep working, you may request immediate reinstatement of benefits. You may receive payments for six months, while the SSA determines whether you still qualify. This option is available for five years after your benefits stop.

  • Medicare coverage: You remain enrolled in Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) for more than seven years after the trial work period. You continue to pay the premium for Medicare Part B (doctor and outpatient services).

  • Ticket to Work: This voluntary program helps people who get SSDI find a path back into the workplace. It can include rehabilitation, training, job leads, and other support. Participants get the help through employment networks and vocational rehabilitation agencies. The SSA doesn’t conduct routine medical reviews of your disability for those participating in Ticket to Work.

You may work only within certain limits and continue to collect disability benefits from Social Security. If you show that you can support yourself on a continuing basis, earning above what the SSA considers a “substantial amount” to do what it calls “gainful work,” the SSA ultimately cuts off benefits.

An effort to work is commendable. Be aware of the rules, though, and make sure that there’s no miscommunication between you and the SSA. If you earn above a certain amount of money, you could be hit with an overpayment notice — or the SSA may even garnish your wages.

Sometimes people who are receiving disability believe they’re allowed to go back to work and end up earning thousands of dollars beyond what the SSA believes they’re eligible for. If this happens, the SSA may send an overpayment notice to recover the money.

The fact is that most people getting SSDI don’t go back to work, which leads some people to argue that the system encourages permanent dependence and that the incentives aren’t effective. Others say that disability beneficiaries have such serious impairments that it’s too hard for most to transition back into jobs.

If you’re getting benefits under SSI, the rules for work and benefits are different than if you’re getting SSDI benefits. Generally, if you receive SSI and earn money, the first $85 in monthly earnings aren’t counted. Above that amount (and after certain deductions), SSI benefits are reduced by 50¢ for every dollar earned.

SSI may deduct work expenses and certain spending toward an approved plan to support yourself. It also expedites restarting of benefits if medical problems once again make it impossible for you to work. Some of the technical rules vary from state to state.