How Much Can I Earn While on Social Security Disability?

A reader writes in, asking:

“Can you recommend an book/author that can help me learn about Social Security disability benefits for my adult disabled child? In particular, I would like to know how much he can earn before it impacts what he may receive from my SS retirement benefit.”

The definition of disability for adult disabled child cases is the same as for cases in which a person is receiving a disability benefit on their own work record.

You can find the disability-related chapters of the SSA’s POMS here. (The POMS is essentially the SSA’s comprehensive internal manual.)

To initially qualify as disabled, a person must be unable to engage in “substantial gainful activity.” For 2020, the threshold for substantial gainful activity is $1,260/month (or $2,110/month for a person who is blind).

However, once a person has already qualified as disabled, there is a different (lower) earnings threshold that becomes relevant. If a disabled person’s earnings in a given month exceed a certain threshold ($910 in 2020), it triggers a “trial work period.” A person’s disability benefit will not be terminated due to their earnings during the trial work period. If a person has 9 months of earnings above that threshold ($910 in 2020) during any rolling 60-month window, the trial work period ends, and then the following rules kick in, to determine whether their disability benefit actually gets terminated. (Of note: the 9 months don’t have to be consecutive.)

After a person’s trial work period ends, they aren’t necessarily permanently considered no-longer-disabled. Rather, after the trial work period, the person enters a 36-month “re-entitlement period.” (The rules for this period are sometimes referred to as the “extended period of eligibility” rules.) During this re-entitlement period, the first time that the person’s earnings exceed the substantial gainful activity threshold ($1,260 in 2020), it triggers their “grace period.” This grace period lasts 3 months (the first month with excess earnings and the following two months). During the grace period, the person will continue to receive their benefit, regardless of earnings level. After the 3-month grace period though, for the remainder of the re-entitlement period, the person’s benefit is determined month-by-month. (If their earnings exceed the SGA threshold, they get no benefit. If their earnings are below the threshold, they get a benefit.)

After the 36-month re-entitlement period ends, the person’s benefit is permanently terminated in the first month in which they earn more than the SGA threshold.

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