The Social Security Trial Work Period: Will my disability benefits continue if I return to work?

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The Social Security Trial Work Period: Will my disability benefits continue if I return to work?

You may be able to return to work and still be entitled to benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) encourages individuals with disabilities to return to work. Therefore, it allows for a trial work period which allows for individuals to try to return to work without fear of losing their benefits. A trial work period is basically a way for an individual to test his or her ability to return to work, without any negative consequence to their disability benefits. The trial work period lasts for up to nine months during a five-year period. The nine months do not have to be consecutive and can occur at any time during the five years. Usually, if an individual is able to return to work, they would no longer be considered disabled. But, work performed during a period of time deemed the trial work period will not be looked at by SSA in determining whether an individual is still disabled.

How much can I earn before the trial work period is triggered?

How much money can I earn before my work activity is considered part of the trial work period? There is a certain threshold amount that changes each year, as set forth in 20 CFR 404.1592, that triggers the trial work period. For example, in 2019 the amount one could earn was up to $880 a month. In 2020, the amount is up to $910 per month. Even if you do not actually earn income, if the services or work that you perform is usually performed for income or profit, then that work activity still counts towards the trial work period threshold amount. Also, if you are self-employed, then SSA will look at your net earnings for the month in determining whether those earnings meet the threshold amount and trigger the trial work period.

What could stop my benefits?

What if I work for more than nine months exceeding the threshold amount in a five-year period?   If you are able to earn over the threshold amount for more than nine months in a five-year period, then you will have used up your trial work period months.  SSA will then look to see if your earnings after the nine months amounted to Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA).   SGA is based upon a formula that the SSA uses to determine eligibility for social security benefits.  In the year 2020, SGA is defined as earnings over $1,260 a month.  If your earnings exceed what is considered SGA for at least one month after the ninth months of your trial work period, then you may be considered no longer disabled, and your benefits may stop.  

Benefits may also stop if your disability ceases for reasons other than a return to work, such as medical improvement or recovery.  SSA provides for an extended period of eligibility for benefits starting the month after the trial work period ends.  This extended period lasts for 36 months and is called the re-entitlement period.  If an individual is earning over substantial gainful activity levels after the trial work period ends, benefits will cease three months after the end of the trial work period.  If the individual is not earning over SGA, then disability benefits will be payable during the re-entitlement period and will continue indefinitely until the individual earns over substantial gainful activity levels.  But, once the 36-month period ends, any earnings over SGA will cause disability benefits to terminate; and you will need to reapply for benefits if your earnings subsequently drop below SGA levels.

When does the trial work period start? 

The SSA will not count any work that you did prior to when you filed your claim for Social Security disability benefits as part of the trial work period. They also cannot count any work that you did prior to when you were first entitled to benefits towards your trial work period. Therefore, if your disability entitlement start date is deemed to be before you filed your application for benefits, then the timeframe for determining any trial work period would not start until the date you filed your claim for benefits. However, if you become entitled to benefits after you filed your claim for benefits, then it is this later date of entitlement that would mark the first date for a trial work period.

When does a trial work period NOT apply?

You are not entitled to a trial work period if you are not entitled to disability insurance benefits or benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Therefore, a trial work period does not apply in the instances below:

  • If you are receiving benefits under title XVI of the Social Security Act, a trial work period would not apply. 
  • You also would not be entitled to the trial work period for work performed within 12 months of the onset of disability, and before a decision was rendered finding that you are disabled. 

You may be awarded a trial work period if you return to work more than 12 months after the onset of disability, prior to the adjudication of the claim, and prior to the receipt of any disability benefits. The reason for this is that before considering eligibility for a trial work period, the administrative law judge must first decide entitlement to disability benefits. In determining entitlement to benefits, the administrative law judge must first see if the durational requirement for disability is met.  

Determining Disability

In order for a claimant to be found disabled, he or she must be unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months in duration.  Thus, this 12-month durational requirement and the ultimate entitlement to benefits is a threshold issue that must be evaluated at the outset.

Once an administrative law judge determines entitlement to disability benefits, then there can be a trial work period for any months of work after the initial 12 months from the onset of disability. It is important to note that the administrative law judge is limited in how he or she may use evidence of work activity during the trial work period. The administrative law judge can only look at whether or not the disability ended after the conclusion of the trial work period. Thus, the administrative law judge cannot look at work activity (during the trial work period) in determining disability.  

Thus, it is important to note that work performed as part of a trial work period will not be held against you.  Of course, this does not necessarily hold true for work performed during the first 12 months after the onset date of the disability. Any work performed during these initial 12 months can, and likely will, be scrutinized by an administrative law judge upon considering whether you are disabled and entitled to benefits (since this work activity is not part of the trial work period).  

Please note, any work activity that you engage in that exceeds substantial gainful activity levels also has consequences for a determination of disability and the continuation of disability benefits.  This is the subject of a separate article.

Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits with LaBovick Law Group

If you believe that your disability prevents you from working, applying for social security disability is likely the right choice for you.  At the LaBovick Law Group, we provide free consultations where we will review the facts of your case to determine if this is the right program for you.  Call us today at (561) 623-3681 for your free evaluation.

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