Generally, you can't start doing "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) and continue to receive disability benefits. In a nutshell, SGA means you are working and making more than $1,170 per month in 2017 (or $1,920 if you're blind). There are exceptions to this rule, however. For SSDI recipients, there is a trial work period during which you can make more than the SGA amount without losing your benefits. (For a discussion of how much you can work when applying for benefits, see our section on working and eligibility for Social Security disability.)
SSDI recipients are entitled to test their ability to work and continue to receive full benefits regardless of whether they make more than the SGA amount, for a nine-month trial work period. For 2017, the SSA considers any month where a person has a monthly income of more than $840 a trial work month. If you are self-employed, any month where you work more than 80 hours (or earn more than $840) is a trial work month.
Once you have completed the nine-month trial work period, you can still receive SSDI for any month where your earnings fall below the SGA level, for a period of 36 months. This is called the extended period of eligibility. In other words, if you earn more than $1,170 per month, you won't get disability benefits for that month.
If your SSDI payments have stopped because your income is substantial, the SSA gives you five years during which your benefits can be reinstated if you stop work because of your disability. During the five-year period, the SSA will not require you to file a new disability application to get benefits. This is called expedited reinstatement.
If you lose your job during the trial work period, your disability benefits will not be affected. If you lose your job during the 36 months following the trial work period, and you are still disabled, you will need to call the SSA to have your disability benefits restarted.
For more information, see our article on the trial work period, the extended period of eligibility, and expedited reinstatement.
You can begin to work and continue to receive SSI benefits as long as your wages and other resources do not exceed the SSA’s income limit for SSI; however, your monthly benefit amount will be reduced in proportion to your income.
Here's how the SSA reduces your income. If your only income is from your job, the SSA does not include the first $85 you earn toward your countable income. After the $85 adjustment, the SSA will deduct 50 cents for every dollar you earn from your monthly benefits. Here is an example of a person who earns $1,170 a month from working: $1,170 - $85 = $1,085 ÷ 2 = $542.50. The individual’s monthly SSI benefit amount would be reduced by $542.50.
Your monthly benefit amount is also affected by the amount your state adds to the federal SSI payment, if any. For more information, see our article on how much SSI pays.
If your SSI payments stop because you earn too much money, but you are subsequently forced to quit work because of your disability, the SSA will reinstate your benefits without the need for a new application for a period of five years.
Learn more about the SSI work incentive programs.
If, because of your disability, you have certain work-related expenses that a non-disabled person does not, the SSA will deduct these costs from your monthly earnings when calculating your benefits. Examples of qualifying expenses include special transportation needs or counseling services.
Both SSI and SSDI recipients must report to the SSA:
You must also report your monthly wages to the SSA. If you report your wages by telephone, it must be done by the 6th of the next month; otherwise you must mail or bring in your paystub to your local SSA by the 10th of the next month.
For more information, see our section on reporting changes to Social Security.
The mere fact that you are working, even if you are making less than $1,170 per month, may influence the attitude a disability claims examiner or a disability judge as your claim is being considered. For this reason, many disability lawyers and representatives will advise their clients not to work while their case is pending.
Learn more about the trial work period rules and work incentives.