Freelancing and disability benefits

Sep 22, 2021

The Social Security Administration has complex rules for Social Security Disability (SSD) recipients who return to work, particularly those who are self-employed. This guide summarizes some of the most important rules.

Substantial Gainful Activity

The SSA basically says that you are only eligible for SSD benefits if you cannot engage in Substantial Gainful Activity. The SSA says that employment income of $1,310 or more per month in 2021 is considered Substantial Gainful Activity (the figure can change annually: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/sga.html). The basic rule of SSD benefits is that you should not receive SSD for any month that you are engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity. There are exceptions.

Trial Work Period

The primary exception to the rule is what they call a Trial Work Period. If you receive SSD and earn $940 or more in a month in 2021 from employment income (the figure can change annually: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/twp.html), the SSA will count that month towards a Trial Work Period. You will be allowed to keep your earnings (even if they are more than the Substantial Gainful Activity amount) and your full SSD award for 9 months in a 60-month period (the months do not need to be consecutive).

Extended Period of Eligibility

After you have earned over the Trial Work Period amount for 9 months, you will enter the Extended Period of Eligibility. During this 36-month “re-entitlement period”, you can be re-entitled to SSD benefits if your work activity falls below the Substantial Gainful Activity level. You are eligible for SSD benefits for the first month and the following two consecutive months during your Extended Period of Eligibility in which you work above the Substantial Gainful Activity amount ($1,310 in 2021, $2,190 if you are blind). After that, your SSD benefits will stop if you continue to earn above the SGA amount.

Calculation of Self-Employment Income

Self-employment income from your own business can be difficult to calculate. The SSA will determine your “countable income” by looking at your salary and profits. They will consider the amount of money you put into your business. They will then deduct the following from your net earnings: the value of any significant amount of unpaid help given to you by other people, impairment-related work expenses, and business support paid by someone else. The resulting amount is your “countable income.”

If you are still in the Trial Work Period and your countable income is more than $910 in a month, that month will count towards your Trial Work Period. If you are in your Extended Period of Eligibility and your countable income is more than $1,310 in a month, the SSA will consider it Substantial Gainful Activity and you will not be eligible for SSD benefits in that month.

Report Your Income

It is extremely important that you report your income to the SSA on a monthly basis and keep track of your Trial Work Period months. Keep track of all documents you submit to the SSA, the dates you submitted or interacted with an agent, and the name of the agent. It often happens that someone completes the Trial Work Period, engages in Substantial Gainful Activity and is still paid SSD benefits. This will result in an overpayment and the SSA may not address it for many months. This means that they will collect the “overpaid” SSD benefits back from you. There are sometimes ways of avoiding repayment but it is often a very stressful and difficult process.

Medicare

Even if your SSD benefits are terminated because of the amount of your income, you will get at least 7 years and 9 months of continued Medicare coverage, as long as your disabling condition still meets the SSA rules. At the end of that period, you have the option of continuing Medicare Part A coverage by paying a premium. If you have Medicare Part B, you will just continue to pay the premium as you have in the past.

*This guide is designed to provide background information about the areas of law discussed. Information in this guide about the law may not reflect the most recent updates and should be verified. The information provided in this blog post is not intended to and does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice about your specific situation, you should consult with a qualified attorney.

Daniel F. Pepitone

Daniel F. Pepitone is an attorney who helps the self-employed and small businesses with contract negotiation, copyright and trademark registration and enforcement, disability insurance, and more.