Qualifying for Disability Benefits While Working

Man in wheelchair working at a desk

Continuing to work while awaiting a decision on Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income benefits could affect applicants’ eligibility. When a disabling condition that keeps them from working strikes, few people have the necessary resources to keep themselves afloat during the application and review processes. Unfortunately, it may take several months or more for the Social Security Administration to make a determination and applicants to begin receiving their disability benefits.

Eligibility Requirements for Disability Benefits

Since SSDI and SSI benefits are only available to those with disabling medical conditions that prevent them from working, applicants who are still on the job must ensure their income earned and hours worked do not exceed the limits for a qualified impairment. To receive SSDI, applicants must not be able to perform substantial gainful activity. Social Security assesses the type of work performed and the earnings people bring in each month, among other factors, in deciding whether they are doing substantial gainful activity. For the year 2020, earnings over $1,260 per month for non-blind applicants and $2,110 per month for applicants with vision impairments qualify as substantial gainful activity.

As a needs-based program, eligibility for SSI benefits is based on applicants having limited income and resources. The income limits for SSI vary by state; however, they include wages, pensions and Social Security benefits, as well as food and shelter. The SSA also factors in the things people own when determining their eligibility for SSI benefits. To qualify, the total value of applicants’ resources, including bank accounts, cash, stocks and bonds, and real estate holdings, cannot exceed $2,000. Married applicants may still qualify for SSI with personal and shared resources worth up to $3,000. Resources such as the homes and land where applicants live, life insurance policies with face values of no more than $1,500, applicants’ primary vehicles, burial plots for applicants and members of their immediate families, up to $1,500 in burial funds for applicants and up to $1,500 in burial funds for applicants’ spouses are considered.

Unsuccessful Work Attempts

Unsuccessful work attempts are efforts by SSDI or SSI applicants to return to their jobs, which fail within six months as a result of their disabling conditions. In some cases, unsuccessful work attempts may serve as a permittable excuse to explain why people were still on the job when they applied for disability benefits. However, to qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt, applicants must have stopped working for at least 30 days prior to their returns because of their impairments. Alternatively, failed efforts to go back to work may qualify as unsuccessful work attempts if the applicants’ earnings fell below the SGA level due to their disabilities for at least 30 days.

Self-Employed Exemptions

The SSA uses different rules to determine whether small business owners or otherwise self-employed applicants qualify for disability benefits. The income limits imposed on other workers may not accurately indicate whether self-employed applicants are doing substantial gainful activity. Social Security considers whether applicants are performing significant services to their businesses and receiving substantial income as a result of those services, performing work comparable to that of non-disabled workers in the same or similar businesses, or performing work worth a value of at least $1,180 per month to the business.

Alternative Sources of Financial Assistance and Support

To help themselves get by during the SSDI and SSI application and review processes, people may consider seeking help through various local, state and federal programs. For example, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other short-term and temporary disability benefit programs may provide the financial assistance people need to provide for themselves and their families while waiting for a disability determination. With few exceptions, participation in these programs does not affect people’s income limitations for the SSA’s purposes of making a disability determination.

Applicants may also pursue other avenues for financial assistance while awaiting their disability benefit determinations. In order to help manage their financial obligations, people may consider accepting help from family members or friends. They may also consider taking out a home equity loan, refinancing their mortgages or borrowing from a retirement plan.

Unemployment Benefits and Disability Claims

While it may be possible for people to collect unemployment while applying for SSDI or SSI benefits, doing so may have an impact on the outcomes of disability determinations. A source of income for people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, when they apply for unemployment, people attest they can perform job duties and are actively seeking work. Since eligibility for disability benefits is based on applicants’ inability to perform any type of work, some administrative law judges may view the receipt of unemployment benefits as evidence that a person can continue to work through his or her medical condition.

Social Security Disability

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