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.
During the first nine months that you return to work, you will continue to receive your SSDI benefits, even if you work more than the amount that Social Security considers "substantial gainful activity," or "SGA." (SGA generally means that you are earning $1,260 or more per month, in 2020) At the end of nine months of work, your trial work period is over and your benefits will stop if you are doing SGA.
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 $910 (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've 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 might be able to get another set of nine trial work months down the road. 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 end up getting more than nine trial work months.
In addition, if your disability benefits stopped for a period, but you applied for expedited reinstatement (see below) and became eligible for SSDI benefits again, you are eligible for a new trial work period 24 months after your disability benefits are reinstated.
After your trial work period is over, Social Security will decide if you are doing substantial gainful activity. If you are doing SGA, your benefits won't stop right away, and they won't be terminated permanently. Immediately after the ninth trial work period (TWP) month, you will enter a 36-month "extended period of eligibility," or "EPE," where you are entitled to special rules. During the 36 consecutive months after your trial work period (your EPE), 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. If you do make over the SGA amount, you won't get a check.
Here's how it works. If your countable gross income is at or below the SGA amount for any month during your EPE, 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 ($1,260 in 2020), 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. After that, your benefits will stop if you continue to earn above the SGA amount.
For your EPE, your countable gross income is your gross income minus any impairment-related work expenses (IRWE) 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. Your eligibility for benefits will end the first month in which your countable gross income exceeds the SGA amount. It will no longer be determined on a month-to-month basis. But if you become disabled again after your EPE, you have a period of time called "expedited reinstatement" in which you won't need to reapply for SSDI.
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. Before denying your claim, Social Security must prove that you have medically improved enough to work since the last time you were receiving benefits. 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.
Updated June 1, 2020