Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is available to people who can no longer work due to a disability (physical or mental). But only those who've paid taxes into the Social Security system for at least several years are eligible for SSDI (see our article on SSDI eligibility to see how many work credits are required). Those who are approved for benefits receive monthly SSDI payments that are determined by their earnings records over the last 35 years (the average amount is $1,358 in 2022).
The SSDI program doesn't put a limit on the amount of assets or unearned income you have, unlike the low-income disability program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
But the Social Security Administration (SSA) does put a limit on the amount of money that you can earn through work when you receive Social Security disability benefits, because if you can earn a substantial amount of income, you aren't considered disabled.
A person collecting SSDI can have any amount of assets and any amount of income from investments, interest, or a spouse's income. These are all types of "unearned income." You (and your spouse, if you're married) can have an unlimited amount of unearned income. Unearned income includes:
Any type of gifts, even expensive ones, doesn't affect SSDI benefits at all. You don't have to report them to the SSA as income.
A person with a disability applying for or receiving SSDI can't earn more than a certain amount of money per month by working; this isn't because of an income limit, but rather because the SSA wouldn't consider that person disabled.
If you can do what the SSA calls "substantial gainful activity" (SGA), you aren't disabled. A person who earns more than a certain monthly amount is considered to be "engaging in SGA," and thus not eligible for SSDI benefits. In 2022, the SGA amount is $1,350 for disabled applicants and $2,260 for blind applicants. (Federal regulations use the national average wage index to set the income limit for determining the SGA each year.)
The rules differ for business owners, since their monthly income may not reflect the work effort they put into their business. For more information, see our article on SGA for small business owners.
Some people receiving SSDI may experience enough improvement in their condition that they want to try to return to the workforce, but they're afraid that they'll be unable to keep a job due to their disabilities. To encourage SSDI recipients with disabilities to try to return to work, the SSA provides an exception to the SGA rules. This exception is called the "trial work period."
During the trial work period (TWP), a person receiving SSDI can have unlimited earnings and still receive full benefits without risking getting their benefits terminated.
The trial work period provides nine months (that do not need to be consecutive) out of a 60-month period where SSDI recipients can try out working without having their disability benefits ended. What counts as one of the nine trial work months? In 2022, any month in which an SSDI recipient earns more than $970 is considered a trial work month. (Notice that this amount is lower than the SGA amount.)
After an SSDI recipient has worked for nine months making more than $970, the SSA will start evaluating the person's work to see if it is over the SGA limit. If it is, disability benefits will continue for three months (a grace period) and then stop.
But when the SSA terminates benefits because an individual is working over the SGA limit, the SSA will restart benefits anytime within the next 36 months in which the individual fails to earn the monthly SGA amount for a month, or becomes unable to work again due to the same disability. For more information, see our article on the trial work period and the 36-month period following the TWP.
Updated December 10, 2021