Several Social Security programs allow SSDI beneficiaries to try returning to work without jeopardizing their entitlement to Social Security disability benefits. The first of these programs is the trial work period.
The Trial Work Period
During the first nine months that you return to work, you will continue to receive your SSDI benefits. At the end of nine months of work, your trial work period is over, and the SSA will decide if you have been doing "substantial gainful activity," or SGA. (SGA is generally earning $1,070 or more per month.) If your average earnings are over the SGA amount, your SSDI benefits will end.
You are entitled to nine trial work months during your trial work period, and a month doesn't count toward your nine months if you make less than $770 (gross) or if you work less than 80 hours per month in self-employment (irrespective of the amount earned). Your nine trial work months need not be consecutive, so there can be gaps between your trial work months that count toward your nine-month limit.
Once you have used nine trial work months during any five-year period, you have exhausted your trial work period and are not entitled to another trial work period (unless your SSDI benefits end due to working, and you subsequently become entitled to benefits again by submitting a new application for SSDI benefits or through expedited reinstatement.
However, if you use fewer than nine trial work months during any five-year period, you may be able to get another set of nine trial work months. Trial work months more than five years old are no longer counted, so your entitlement to nine months of trial work may start over, and you may be end up getting more than nine trial work months.
EXAMPLE: Joseph worked and earned more than the trial work amount between May and December 2005. Joseph quit working in December 2005 and did work again until January 2012. Because Joseph did not use his entire trial work period and all of his trial work months are more than five years old, he is entitled to nine new trial work months, beginning in January 2012.
EXAMPLE: Martha returned to work in January 2011 earning $1,400 per month (gross). She continued to work until she was laid off in July 2011. She has used seven trial work months; during her trial work months she received her full SSDI benefits, even though she earned above the trial work amount (and above the SGA amount) during those months. She is entitled to two more trial work months. If she does not work again until after July 2016, she will be entitled to nine trial work months at that time.
Or, if your disability benefits stopped for a period, but you become eligible for SSDI benefits again because your application for expedited reinstatement is granted, you are eligible for a new trial work period 24 months after your disability benefits are reinstated.
Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE)
After you complete your trial work period, you will enter an "extended period of eligibility," or EPE. If you are successful in going back to work, during the 36 consecutive months after your trial work period, your eligibility to receive a monthly SSDI check is determined on a month-to-month basis. If you don't make above the SGA amount in a particular month, you can still get your SSDI check.
Here's how it works. If your countable gross income is at or below the SGA amount for any month, you are eligible for your full SSDI benefit amount for that month. In any month in which your countable gross income exceeds the SGA amount ($1,070 in 2014), you are not entitled to benefits for that month. However, there is a one-time exception to this rule known as the "grace period." You are eligible for benefits for the first month and the following two consecutive months during your EPE in which you work above the SGA amount.
EXAMPLE: Enos returned to work on January 1, 2012 with countable gross income of $2,000 per month. He received his full SSDI benefits during his trial work period, which ended at the end of September 2012. October 2012 is the first month of his EPE; it is also the first month of his grace period, because he is working above the SGA amount. His grace period is October through December 2012, so he continues to receive his full benefits through December 2012. During the 33 following months of EPE, he will not be eligible for benefits during any month in which his countable gross income exceeds the SGA amount.
EXAMPLE: Bernadette returned to work part-time on January 1, 2012, with countable gross income of $900 per month. Bernadette completed her trial work period at the end of September 2012, but continued to receive her SSDI benefits because she was in her EPE and working below the SGA amount. Bernadette begins working full-time and earning $1,800 per month in January 2013; January, February and March, 2013 constitute her grace period, and she receives her SSDI benefits during those months. Between April 2013 and the end of September 2015 (her EPE), she will not be eligible for benefits during any month in which her countable gross income exceeds the SGA amount.
For your EPE, your countable gross income is your gross income minus any impairment-related work expenses you have. Subsidies approved by Social Security are also subtracted from your income. (But note that impairment-related work expenses and subsidies are not subtracted from your income during the trial work period). If you are self-employed, a special formula is used to determine your annual net earnings from self employment, and the resulting amount is divided by 12 (or by the applicable number of months, if you worked in self-employment for less than a full year). This determines your monthly countable income.
Beginning in the 37th month after the end of your trial work period, your EPE ends, and your eligibility for benefits ends the first month in which your countable gross income exceeds the SGA amount.
You can file an application for expedited reinstatement if your countable gross income falls below the SGA amount or stops altogether at any time within five years after your benefits ceased due to work activity. (After this five year period is up, you must file a brand new application for benefits to re-enter the disability system.)
If you file an application for expedited reinstatement, Social Security will pay you benefits for six months while the agency processes your application. Even if Social Security denies your application for expedited reinstatement, Social Security will let you keep the benefits paid while your application was pending. However, the odds are in your favor when you file an application for expedited reinstatement. Social Security must prove that you have medically improved since the last time you were receiving benefits before denying your claim. In contrast, if you file a new application for benefits, you must prove that you are medically disabled before your claim will be granted.
These rules apply to persons who are disabled by impairments other than statutory blindness; special rules apply to blind beneficiaries.