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If you're on Social Security disability, you've successfully claimed that you have a medical condition that prevents you from working. Nevertheless, Social Security wants you to get back to work, and will allow you to earn money while you try to get back into the labor force. The rules are a bit confusing, but you can remain on disability as long as your income is limited.
Substantial Gainful Activity
The basic rule on income when you apply for disability is based on the "substantial gainful activity" amount. As of 2013, if you earn more than $1,040 a month before taxes, Social Security considers you to be gainfully employed. Your disability application will be denied on this technicality, and there is no appeal unless the agency is in error about your income. Once you've been approved for disability, however, the rules on earned income change.
Earned and Unearned
It's important to understand the difference between earned and unearned income. The SGA and other income limits apply only to money you make from a job or self-employment. You can still earn an unlimited amount of money from sources such as private disability insurance, savings and investments, pensions and TANF, or welfare, benefits. This unearned income is not limited for Social Security disability. If you've paid in to the system through payroll taxes, and have enough work credits, then you're eligible for Social Security disability, no matter how much unearned income you have or how much you have in the bank.
Trial Work Period
Once you're on disability, the rules encourage you to try a return to the workforce, if you're physically able. Social Security counts a Trial Work Period, or TWP, as starting as soon as you earn $750 in a month, or work 80 hours a month as self-employed. After the TWP has started, you stay on disability but get nine months of unlimited income in any five-year period. The months don't have to be consecutive. After the nine months are counted, Social Security considers you as having entered an Extended Period of Eligibility. At any time, Social Security can review your medical records and decide that you're no longer disabled.
Extended Period of Eligibility
The Extended Period of Eligibility, or EPE, lasts 36 months after your Trial Work Period ends. If you're in the EPE, the SGA amount becomes important again. As soon as you earn above SGA, Social Security will find you officially not disabled, although your benefits will continue for a two-month grace period after this finding. If your benefits have ended but your earnings fall below SGA within the Extended Period of Eligibility, Social Security can start your disability benefits again without an entirely new application. After the EPE, if you make over SGA, your benefits will end, although you can apply for Expedited Reinstatement within five years. If you don't make over SGA after the Trial Work Period, then your disability benefits continue unless Social Security does a medical review and finds you're no longer disabled.
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Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.