What is a trial work period?

January 3, 2022 in

Many people who have become disabled, or who are waiting for approval of Social Security Disability benefits, wonder how they will be able to pay bills and support themselves. Some individuals attempt to return to work, either while waiting for their claim to be approved, or after they have been approved for benefits. The good news is that Social Security does allow people to attempt to return to work and maintain eligibility for benefits for a certain period of time, so long as certain guidelines are followed.

It is first necessary to understand what Social Security Disability benefits are. Social Security Disability Insurance is a federally administered program, funded by payroll taxes. It is available to those who have worked and paid taxes on their earnings, and who are unable to continue working due to a medical condition that lasts or is expected to last for at least twelve months or result in death. To be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, your work earnings must have been reduced to less than what Social Security refers to as “substantial gainful activity” levels due to your medical conditions after your date of the disability. “Substantial gainful activity” levels are determined by Social Security and updated on an annual basis. In 2022, the maximum that one can earn and remain under the substantial gainful activity threshold is $1350 per month. These earnings are gross earnings prior to deductions and net take-home pay. If you attempt to return to work with earnings over the substantial gainful activity amount after your date of disability but have to stop working within 6 months of starting due to your medical conditions, this will be considered an unsuccessful work attempt. However, there should typically be a period of about 12 months between your date of disability and the date that you attempted to return to work. This is because Social Security’s definition of “disability” is a condition that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months that keeps you from working. Therefore, if you have returned to work within the 12 month period, Social Security will likely find that you do not meet their definition of disabled.

If you are attempting to return to work, Social Security allows you to test your ability to rejoin the workforce and remain eligible for benefits for a period of time. This is referred to as a “trial work period.” If you are receiving benefits, you will continue to receive benefits during the trial work period regardless of how much you earn. Social Security does not consider work activities that are performed during the trial work period as showing that the disability has ended until the services have been performed for at least 9 months within a rolling 60 month period. The 9 months of service do not have to be performed consecutively. Social Security defines “services” as any activity which is done in employment for pay or for-profit or is the kind which is normally done for pay or for profit. Your trial work period starts when you begin working and performing “services” with earnings over the trial work period amounts designated by Social Security. The trial work period amounts differ from the substantial gainful activity amounts; they are also updated on an annual basis but are much lower. In 2022, the trial work period amount is $970 per month. Again, these are gross earnings. Social Security will deduct the amount that you need to spend on impairment-related expenses when determining whether your earnings meet this threshold. For example, if you need to spend money on specialized work-related equipment or assistive devices in order to perform your job, those expenses will be deducted from the trial work period earnings in determining your eligibility. Your trial work period cannot begin until the first month when you become entitled to disability benefits, or the month when you filed for disability benefits, whichever is later. Note as well that Social Security can terminate your benefits before the trial work period has ended if it determines that your medical condition has improved and that you no longer meet Social Security’s definition of “disabled.” Therefore, it is important to continue to receive treatment for your conditions, even after your benefits have been approved.

If you have returned to work and are still waiting for approval, it is possible for Social Security to approve your disability benefits yet state that you are within a trial work period. This often happens when people who are applying for benefits have reached the hearing stage, which often happens nearly two years after the date they filed for benefits. If you have been approved for benefits but the administrative law judge states that you are within a trial work period, it is important to note that your reason for stopping working after approval needs to be related to your medical condition or any treatment that you are receiving as a result of your condition. In the alternative, if you are able to continue working and have not yet been approved for benefits, you may want to opt for a closed period of benefits, which is the period of time between when you became disabled and when you were able to return to work.

Navigating Social Security’s rules related to going back to work while disabled can be very challenging. It is best to obtain representation from an experienced Social Security Disability attorney. Your attorney and legal team will represent you through the application, reconsideration, and hearing phases of the disability benefits process and provide guidance as to the best steps to take to ensure your claim is successful. Fighting for approval for Social Security Disability benefits is a very lengthy, slow-moving process, and receiving professional help relieves some of the burdens of this often very stressful endeavor. Call LaBovick Law Group at (561) 625-8400 for a free case evaluation and to get your Social Security Disability application started.