Volunteer work may or may not disqualify you for disability benefits, depending on the circumstances. The main rule is that you can't receive Social Security disability benefits if you are doing what the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers a substantial amount of work.
How the SSA Defines Substantial Work
The SSA considers work activity to be performing tasks for pay or profit or doing work of a type usually performed for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. The test the SSA generally uses to decide if an activity is substantial is the "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) threshold. For 2014, that amount is $1,070 a month.
While the SSA usually considers only the amount of income you earn from working when calculating whether you are working at the SGA level, this is not the case if you're doing volunteer work. If you are receiving disability benefits and performing volunteer work, the SSA might determine that your work rises to the SGA level and discontinue your benefits. That said, some volunteer work is never considered SGA, even if the volunteer receives payment for his or her services.
When Volunteer Work May Be Considered SGA
Although the SSA doesn't have specific guidelines to use in deciding whether doing volunteer work demonstrates the ability to work full time, here are some examples that the SSA might use as evidence that you can work at the SGA level:
- You volunteer more than a few hours a week.
- The volunteer work you do would be above the SGA level if you received fair payment for it.
- The physical requirements of the volunteer work indicate you could work at the SGA level, or
- You are volunteering at a small business that is owned by a relative.
In one case, for example, a disability recipient who past work was as a certified public account began to volunteer at a local organization. He worked as the organization's bookkeeper for five hours per week. When the recipient's case underwent a continuing disability review (CDR), the SSA determined that he was able to work at the SGA level. This is because bookkeeping was the kind of work usually done for pay, and the amount of pay the recipient could have received for the services he provided to the organization were at the SGA level.
When Volunteer Work Is Never Considered SGA
If you volunteer for one of the following programs covered by the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973, the SSA will not consider any payments you receive for your work, or any services you perform, as evidence of SGA. These programs are:
- Volunteers in Service to America
- University Year for ACTION
- Special Volunteer Programs
- Retired Senior Volunteer Program
- Foster Grandparent Program
- Service Corps of Retired Executives, and
- Active Corps of Executives.
Also, if you volunteer for an advisory committee, board, commission, council or another similar group created by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), the SSA will not consider any payments you receive, or services you perform, for these groups as SGA. However, this exclusion doesn’t apply if you are in one of these positions as part of your job.
Other Exceptions to the SGA Rule
If you've been receiving SSI disability benefits for a year or more, the SGA rule no longer applies to you. Your benefits can't be discontinued unless, during a CDR, the SSA finds that your condition has medically improved enough for you to work. But while you can do volunteer work without violating the SGA rule, your volunteer work could still be a red flag to the SSA that your condition has improved. In addition, blind SSI recipients aren't subject to the SGA rule even when first applying for benefits. Of course, blind and nonblind recipients have to meet the income and asset limits to qualify for SSI. (For more information, see our article on income limits when receiving SSI.)
Contact a Disability Attorney If You're Unsure
If you are a volunteer in a position that meets the above definition of SGA, you might want to reconsider your activities. If you receive disability and volunteer, the SSA could determine at your next CDR that you are able to work at the SGA level.
If you are not sure whether your volunteer work is SGA, and you really want to continue doing it, you might consider contacting an experienced disability attorney in your area to discuss how your volunteer work could affect your claim or your benefits. Contact a disability attorney here.