Social Security will not cut off your SSI benefits if you earn over the substantial gainful activity (SGA) if you have been receiving SSI disability benefits (for at least a month), although Social Security will not approve a pending SSI claim (initial application) if you are earning over the SGA limit. That said, you are never allowed to make over the income limit for SSI (which may not be much higher than the SGA amount, depending on your state), and you must continue to be disabled, despite being able to work some. (Note that this exception to the SGA rule does not apply to working while getting SSDI.)
How Your Income Affects Your SSI Payment
Social Security will adjust your SSI benefit by the amount of the income you are earning (after the agency confirms that you are still disabled and still meet the income and resource limits for SSI). The general rule is that Social Security reduces the amount of your monthly SSI benefit by the amount of your monthly income. But Social Security has special rules about how it counts earned income (wages), and those rules will affect how much SSI you get while you work.
Social Security does not count the first $65 of earned income every month, and it only counts half of the earned income you earn over $65 per month. In addition, Social Security has disregards $20 of any income, earned or unearned per month. Social Security has even more generous rules about how it counts income for people under 22 who are regularly attending school.
For example, if you are eligible for the maximum 2014 federal benefit amount of $721 (this would happen only if your state does not pay a state supplement and you have no countable income) and you begin to earn $200 at a job every month, you would then receive $663.50 in SSI. (Again, Social Security disregards the first $20 of any kind of income, the first $65 of earned income, and only counts 50% of the remainder. So, your countable income would be $57.50.)
Deducting Disability-Related Expenses From Your Income
In addition, Social Security will exclude income equal to the amount that you need to pay for work expenses related to your disability that are not reimbursed by anyone else. Social Security calls these “impairment-related work expenses.” Blind recipients do not need to show that their work expenses are related to their blindness (these expenses are called blind work expenses).
If you know that you will be earning over the SGA amount and want to avoid having your SSI reduced, you should consider asking Social Security to let you participate in the Plan to Achieve Self-Support (“PASS”) Program. Under this program, Social Security does not count money that you put towards an employment goal if the goal would eventually let you support yourself without SSI.
To use the example above, if you are earning $200 per month as a dishwasher, but you are using that money to pay for cooking school, then you could complete an application for a PASS from Social Security and still get the whole $721 per month from SSI. You need to apply for a PASS using Form SSA-545-BK, and Social Security needs to approve it.
For more information on the PASS program as well as other Social Security incentives to get SSI recipients with disabilities back to work, see our article on SSI work incentives.