Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is available to individuals who can no longer work due to a disability (physical or mental). But only those who have paid taxes onto 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 determined by their respective earnings records (the average amount is $1,197 in 2018).
The SSDI program does not put a limit on the amount of assets or unearned income you have (or income that your spouse may earn), unlike the low-income disability program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
However, 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 an income, you aren't considered disabled.
Specifically, if you can engage in what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls "substantial gainful activity" (SGA), you won't be eligible for benefits. A person who earns more than a certain monthly amount is considered to be engaging in SGA. Federal regulations use the national average wage index to set the income limit for determining the SGA each year. In 2018, the amount is $1,180 for disabled applicants and $1,970 for blind applicants. 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.)
While a disabled (nonblind) person applying for or receiving SSDI cannot earn more than $1,180 per month by working, a person collecting SSDI can have any amount of income from investments, interest, or a spouse's income.
Some people receiving SSDI may have their condition improve enough that they want to return to the workforce, but are afraid that they will 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 for a trial work period. During the trial work period (TWP), a person receiving SSDI can have unlimited earnings and still receive full benefits without risking termination of benefits.
The trial work period provides nine months (that do not need to be consecutive) out of a rolling 60-month period where SSDI recipients can try out working before their disability is deemed to have ended. What counts as one of the nine trial work months? In 2018, any month in which an SSDI recipient earns more than $850 is considered a trial work month. (Notice that this amount is different (lower) than the SGA amount.)
When the SSDI recipient has worked (or "provided services," in SSA lingo) for nine months, the SSA will evaluate the person's work to see if it has been over the SGA limits. If it has been, disability benefits will continue for three months and then stop. If the SSA terminates benefits because an individual is working over the SGA limit, however, the individual can have benefits resumed anytime within the next 36 months in which the individual fails to earn the monthly SGA amount 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.