The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for providing benefits to people who are disabled and either temporarily (more than 12 months) or permanently unable to work. In order to determine that people are actually unable to work the SSA keeps track of a beneficiary’s medical condition and financial status. If you are receiving payments from either the Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) program or the Supplement Security Income (SSI) program, the SSA will require that you submit proof of income information on an annual basis to ensure that your income does not exceed a certain limit. This limit is called the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level. This post will explain how the Social Security Administration defines SGA for you as one of its beneficiaries and the limits on income that the SSA requires in order to continue providing benefits.
Substantial gainful activity (SGA) is most easily understood as gross monthly income from earnings. Gross income means earnings before taxes and deductions.
The SSA defines SGA income limits every year; in 2017, the pre-tax monthly income limit for non-blind Social Security beneficiaries is $1,170 from working, and blind people can earn up to $1,950 per month and continue to receive disability benefits. For 2018, non-blind beneficiaries make take home $1,180 in monthly income (before taxes!), and blind people can still generate up to $1,950 (again, before taxes!). If you receive SSDI benefits each month and return to working at or above the monthly SGA limit your benefits may be ceased, but you will have a trial working period first to ensure that you are physically capable of maintaining the job you are working. However, exceeding SGA earnings can cause your benefits to be stopped, or it can make you ineligible if you are waiting for the initial determination on your application.
Another issue is that SGA is not as simple as just counting income from work. To help think about this, consider the words “substantial” and “gainful” as the Social Security Administration thinks about them. For an activity to be defined as “substantial,” it should require a meaningful amount of physical and/or mental activity and attention. Part-time work can, therefore, be substantial, and volunteer work can be too. In this situation, volunteer work means work that you are not paid for whether it is for a charity or some other business. “Gainful” is related to an activity’s earning potential, so whether you make money or not, a job counts as “gainful” if it is something people are usually paid to do in the work force. Volunteer work that exceeds an annually-set number of hours per week serves a business owned by a family member, or could offer wages exceeding the SGA income limit, will be considered substantial gainful activity by the SSA. The SSA may determine that you are ineligible for benefits if you work, even for well below the income threshold, if the activities you take part in demonstrate that you are able to perform and maintain work.
Not all income counts towards the SGA calculation. Income earned from investments is considered passive and does not relate to your physical or mental ability to work for yourself. Income added to standard wages in a setting specially designated for disabled employees is considered a subsidy, and only the base pay is considered SGA by the Social Security Administration. Income from child support and alimony are not counted. If you have money coming in, and you are not 100% sure, ask an attorney who knows Social Security law if it counts as part of SGA.
You do not need to worry about losing your benefits from SSDI or SSI for going to school, participating in mental or physical therapies, doing what is required to take care of your own body or maintaining your home. The SSA is only interested in examining your ability to work because it cannot legally provide benefits to those who are able to work for themselves.
Understanding the laws and regulations that the Social Security Administration has to follow in determining your eligibility for benefits can be confusing. Remember that any income you earn must be less than the annual Substantial Gainful Activity level BEFORE TAXES and that some forms of labor that are unpaid may still cancel your eligibility. If you have any doubts at all about your eligibility to continue receiving benefits as you return to part-time work and volunteering, though, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.
Author Brian Buchanan is an Injury and Disability attorney with Grimes Teich Anderson LLP. He frequently represents clients before the Social Security Administration and in the state and Federal Courts.