Can I Do Volunteer Work and Continue to Get Disability Benefits?

If Social Security finds that you do so much volunteer work that it counts as "substantial gainful activity," the agency could terminate your disability benefits.

By , J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law

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 do what the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers a "substantial" amount of work.

How Social Security Defines Substantial Work

Social Security considers work activity to be:

  • performing tasks for pay or profit, or
  • doing any type of work that's usually performed for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is made.

In the context of paid work, the SSA generally uses the "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) threshold to decide if an activity is substantial. For 2024, that amount is $1,550 a month.

But while Social Security considers the amount of income you earn when calculating whether you're working at the SGA level, this isn't the case if you're doing volunteer work.

If you're receiving disability benefits and doing volunteer work, Social Security might find that your volunteer work rises to the SGA level and will discontinue your benefits.

When Your Volunteer Work Might Be Considered SGA

Social Security doesn't have specific guidelines for deciding whether the volunteer work you're doing means you can work full-time. But there are situations when Social Security can use your volunteer work as evidence that you can work at the SGA level. (20 C.F.R § 404.1574 b(3)ii.)

Here are some examples of when your volunteer work may get you in trouble:

  • You volunteer more than a few hours a week.
  • The physical requirements of your volunteer work indicate you could work at the SGA level.
  • You volunteer so much that, if you received fair payment for volunteering, the pay would be above the SGA level.
  • You're volunteering at a small business that one of your relatives owns.

And keep in mind, even if your volunteer work alone doesn't add up to your ability to do a substantial amount of work, Social Security could see it as a sign that you're able to get out and do some type of work activity, and if your medical records also show some improvement, the combination could end up getting your benefits terminated during a continuing disability review, or CDR.

Types of Volunteer Work That's Never Considered SGA

That said, some volunteer work is never considered SGA, even if you receive pay for your services.

If you volunteer for one of the programs covered by the Domestic Volunteer Service Act or created by the Small Business Act, Social Security won't consider any volunteer services you perform as evidence of that you're able to do SGA—even if you're paid for those services. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1574 d.) The exempted programs include:

  • AmeriCorps VISTA (formerly Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA))
  • University Year for ACTION
  • Special Volunteer Programs
  • Retired Senior Volunteer Program
  • Older American Community Services Programs
  • Foster Grandparent Program
  • Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), and
  • Active Corps of Executives (ACE).

Also, if you volunteer to serve as a member or advisor for any committee or group created by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), Social Security won't consider any services you perform, or payments you receive, as SGA. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1574 e.) (But this exclusion doesn't apply if you have a job and your organization or business requires you to be a member or consultant of a FACA group.)

SSI Recipients: Exceptions to the SGA Rule for Volunteer Work

If you've been receiving SSI disability benefits for a month or more, the SGA rule no longer applies to you; only the SSI income limits continue to apply. (And blind SSI recipients aren't subject to the SGA rule even when first applying for benefits.)

Your SSI benefits can't be discontinued unless Social Security finds (during a CDR) that your condition has medically improved enough for you to work. But while your volunteer work won't violate SSI rules, Social Security could still see volunteering as a sign that your condition has improved.

Contact a Disability Attorney If You're Unsure

If you're doing volunteer work that meets Social Security's definition of SGA, you might want to reconsider your activities. If you continue to volunteer while receiving disability benefits, Social Security could decide at your next CDR that you can work enough to earn income at the SGA level.

What can you do if you're unsure whether your volunteer work will be considered 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.

If Social Security terminates your disability benefits after a CDR—whether because of your volunteer work or another reason—you have the right to appeal. Learn more about the CDR appeal process.

Updated December 12, 2023

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