There are plenty of reasons why you may be denied your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Having too much income is one of the most common reasons you could be denied benefits. To understand why, it’s important to know what the income limits are and how certain activities could count against you when assessing your benefit eligibility.

Understanding SGA

The Social Security Administration (SSA) usually determines SSDI and SSI eligibility according to an applicant’s ability to earn a living by performing significant physical or mental activities, also known as “substantial gainful activity” (SGA). If you’re disabled and applying for benefits, the amount of money you’re able to earn could count against the SGA threshold set by the SSA. For 2016, the thresholds are $1,130 per month for non-blind recipients and $1,820 for blind recipients.

In order to qualify for benefits, your medical condition must be serious enough that it keeps you from making a significant living throughout the year. Earning wages beyond the set thresholds for SGA could put your benefits in jeopardy as your earning activity indicates an ability to work normally in spite of your condition, even if you work part-time or make substantially less than before you were disabled.

Voluntary Work Could Also Count Against You

Even unpaid activities such as volunteer work could be considered SGA, as these activities demonstrate that you’re able to work at the SGA level. If you pitch in at a local charity or animal shelter for a few hours a week, volunteer at a business owned by a family member or volunteer in a position where wages would be above the SGA level if it was a paid position, the SSA could deny your SSDI or SSI benefits based on this demonstration of your work abilities.

The only exceptions to this rule are voluntary activities covered by the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973 and the Small Business Act. Performing work for programs such as Volunteers in Service to America and Active Corps of Executives won’t count against you when it comes to applying for your SSDI or SSI benefits.

Exceptions to the Rule

Not every activity falls under the SGA rule when it comes to initial eligibility. For instance, the everyday activities you perform to take care of yourself aren’t counted as SGA. Ordinary household chores aren’t counted and your normal social activities won’t be counted as well. You also won’t have to worry about running afoul of SGA levels when undergoing physical, mental or occupational therapy. While these activities won’t affect your initial eligibility, they may play a small role in the SSA deciding whether to continue or terminate your benefits upon reevaluation.

If you’re receiving SSI, you may have some of your earned and unearned income exempted from being counted as SGA. This includes the first $65/month of your earned income plus 1/2 of remaining earnings. Money received from need-based assistance and other social services programs (including rent subsidies and food stamp/EBT programs) are usually excluded from SGA calculations.

Your earnings could also be treated as a subsidy if your employer decides to pay substantially more for your labor due to your disability. As with excluded income, the SSA won’t consider subsidies when determining your eligibility under SGA.

Does Self Employment Count?

If you’re self-employed as a freelancer or a small business owner, the SSA may determine your eligibility through the following means:

  • General Evaluation Criteria – This method evaluates your SSDI and SSI eligibility not only based on your SGA, but also whether the work you’re performing is comparable to the same work done by unimpaired people and if the work is worth more than the SGA threshold amount if it isn’t comparable.
  • Countable income – This method determines your eligibility based on your monthly net income after impairment-related work expenses, unincurred business expenses and unpaid help by others have been deducted.

If you really want to know where you stand when it comes to your income and your benefits eligibility, it’s a good idea to talk to an experienced Social Security disability attorney like J W Chalkley III PA.

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