Disability applicants who have waited a long time for a decision on their Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) applications usually feel a great deal of financial pressure to return to some kind of work. In some cases, you might be able to try to go back to work without losing your chance at benefits, thanks to the trial work period.
If your work activity earns you a denial because you were working over the level that's considered substantial gainful activity (SGA), you can appeal the denial of SSDI benefits if your work happened during what would have been a trial work period. But in most cases, a trial work period can start only after 12 months of disability, as explained below. (For the basics on trial work periods, see our section on the trial work period rules.)
Whether your work qualifies as trial work is a bit complicated and depends on the date of your disability onset, the date you become entitled to receive benefits, and the date you're approved for benefits. Because SSDI decisions can take years, however, you may be disabled and off work for a year without knowing whether you'll be granted benefits. If you meet the definition of disabled during that year, you may be able to try to go back to work and be protected by the trial work period rules.
Once you have been disabled for one year after the onset of your disability (your EOD, or established onset date), any work you perform after that date is protected under the trial work period rules IF the work occurs after your eventual "date of entitlement." (This is true whether you've received an approval or not at the time you start working.) Your date of entitlement is five months after the date that Social Security sets as the onset of your disability.
EXAMPLE: Richard becomes disabled and stops working on January 15, 2018. He files an SSDI application claiming January 15, 2018 as his disability onset date. He returns to work with wages of $2,000 per month on February 1, 2019, which is almost 13 months after his onset date. He receives notification that his SSDI benefits are denied on April 3, 2019. Richard can appeal his denial; if he is ultimately found to be disabled as of January 15, 2018, he will be granted SSDI benefits, and his work in 2019 will be protected under the trial work period rules. This is because he started working after what turned out to be his date of entitlement (June 15, 2018) and more than 12 months after his onset date (January 15, 2018).
On the other hand, if you return to work within 12 months of your onset date (working at or over the SGA level, which is $1,310 per month in 2021) and before you get an approval on your case, you would become ineligible for benefits, and an appeal would be unsuccessful. Social Security will find that you didn't meet the definition of disability since you were not unable to work for 12 consecutive months.
EXAMPLE: Dolores becomes disabled and stops working on January 15, 2018. She files an SSDI application claiming January 15, 2018 as her onset date. She returns to work with wages of $2,000 per month on June 1, 2018. Her SSDI claim is denied on September 3, 2018. Her claim will be denied if she appeals because she returned to work (over the SGA level) within 12 months of her disability onset date.
Note that the rules are different once you are approved for benefits. As long as you are approved and past your five-month waiting period, any work activity is protected by the trial work rules, even if your return to work is within 12 months of your disability onset date.
EXAMPLE: Juan becomes disabled and stops working on January 1, 2019. He files an SSDI application claiming January 1, 2019 as his onset date. His SSDI claim is approved on June 15, 2019 with a disability onset date of January 1, 2019. He returns to work with wages of $2,000 per month on July 1, 2019. His work is treated as trial work because, even though he returned to work within 12 months of his disability onset date, he had already been approved for benefits and he started working after his entitlement to benefits began (his date of entitlement was June 1, 2019, five months after his disability onset date).
For more examples on when working after you apply might be considered trial work, see our article on working after your disability onset date.
Disability is defined as an impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or is expected to last one year. While Social Security regulations state that you are generally not eligible for SSDI benefits if you work at or above the SGA level within 12 months after the onset of your disability, this doesn't apply for those whose disability application was approved for a terminal illness or compassionate allowance condition. These disability claimants can be found disabled without meeting the 12-month duration requirement, so they can return to work within 12 months of the onset of disability under a trial work period.
Updated March 24, 2021