Great! You have now been awarded social security disability benefits. But how long can you receive these benefits?
No award of benefits can truly be considered “permanent”.
All disability insurance benefits (except Supplemental Security Income) end at your full retirement age and simply convert to your retirement benefit, which is equivalent to your disability benefit (unless you started early retirement benefits before acquiring disability benefits).
The Social Security Administration always has the right to conduct a “continuing disability review (CDR)” to determine if you remain disabled. The frequency of these reviews is dependent on the nature of your disability.
Factors Affecting CDR Frequency
Several factors affect how frequently these reviews will be conducted. Conditions such as paraplegia and quadriplegia are usually permanent conditions that do not improve over time. People aged 55 and above are less likely to be reviewed because the standard of disability for persons of advanced age is far easier to meet than for younger persons.
Conversely, younger persons (under age 50) may face a CDR every three years. If you were awarded benefits after going to a hearing with a judge, the judge might include in his/her order a recommendation that a CDR is conducted within a year or other period.
The judge’s recommendation is not binding on SSA. Persons with mental conditions are more likely to face a CDR because many mental conditions improve over time and with medication.
SSA CDR Process
SSA must give you notice that they are undertaking a CDR when SSA begins the review. At this initial stage, you will be asked to fill out questionnaires describing the medical care you have received since benefits began and how your conditions are currently affecting you.
SSA will issue a notice of cessation of benefits if they determine that your condition has improved enough to allow you to return to work. You may appeal that decision by requesting an informal hearing with the state agency responsible for conducting the CDR.
You will be able to have your disability benefits and Medicare benefits continued while your appeal (you must make this election within ten days of receipt of the notice of cessation even though you have 60 days to appeal the cessation).
The informal hearing allows you and other witnesses to appear before the adjudicator to present testimony about how your conditions are affecting you. Following the hearing, the state agency issues a notice of reconsideration, either affirming the cessation or reinstating benefits. If benefits are not reinstated, you may request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge and have your benefits continued while awaiting your hearing.
Benefits cannot be continued following a determination by an Administrative Law Judge that you are no longer disabled, even though you may appeal that decision to SSA’s Appeals Council and subsequently to federal court. In addition to determining whether the conditions for which you were found disabled have improved, SSA must also determine whether you have any new conditions which disable you and were not considered when you were originally found disabled.
Tips for Surviving a CDR
You may seriously damage your ability to survive a CDR if you cease regular medical care after receiving an award of benefits. This results in there being no records to support continued disability and leads the state agency to conclude that if you are no longer receiving medical care, your condition must have improved.
It is essential to be prepared and aware of the potential actions you can take to increase the likelihood of keeping your benefits during a CDR. Below are some tips to keep in mind:
Regular medical attendance allows you to discuss your continued difficulties with your doctor so that he/she can note your complaints in your records.
Keeping a diary or other notation of continued difficulties with daily living activities provides more credible evidence than generalized testimony of ongoing problems.
Friends and relatives who have witnessed your difficulties may provide written statements that must be considered.
It is likewise important to document any new conditions not previously considered when benefits were awarded.
Returning to part-time work below certain levels discussed below may also help you survive a CDR by demonstrating that you remain unable to tolerate full-time work activity.
Statements from employers and supervisors may be helpful.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Possible to Work Part-Time and Not Lose My Disability Benefits?
Yes. It is possible. But the full answer to this question depends on how much you earn and what kind of disability benefits you are receiving—whether you are receiving Social Security disability benefits (sometimes referred to as Social Security Disability Insurance—SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (usually referred to as SSI) benefits.
If you are receiving SSI and you go to work, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will reduce your SSI benefits by one dollar for every two dollars you earn after the first $65 (or $85 if you have no other income). Thus, you could earn so much working part-time that your SSI benefits will stop. But unless your benefits have stopped because of your earnings for an entire year, SSA will start up your SSI benefits again if your earnings go down. After a year of receiving no benefits, you’ll have to apply all over again.
If you are receiving Social Security disability benefits and your earnings are below what SSA calls the “substantial gainful activity” amount, your benefits will neither stop nor be reduced because of earnings. That is, you’ll continue to get your full Social Security disability benefit while you work part-time. It is also possible to earn more than the “substantial gainful activity” amount and still receive your full benefits during the nine-month trial work period.
How Much Can I Earn per Month and Still Receive My Social Security Disability Benefits?
You can earn up to the “substantial gainful activity” amount, which for 2023 is $1,470 per month, and still keep your full Social Security disability monthly benefit. The substantial gainful activity amount is an absolute cut-off point. If your countable earnings average more than the substantial gainful activity amount, even $1 more, your Social Security disability benefits will stop after you have used up your nine-month trial work period (and a grace period of three more months), no matter how disabled you are.
If you are going to work part-time and you want to avoid problems keeping your benefits, it is best to keep your income well below the substantial gainful activity amount. In fact, because there are advantages to keeping your income below what SSA calls the “trial work period services” amount, which in 2023 is $1,050 per month, this is what we recommend if you are receiving Social Security disability benefits. This way, you won’t use up your trial work period months; you can save them for later use if you ever decide to try to go back to work full-time.
If your claim is for SSI, the trial work period rules do not apply. For those people already receiving SSI benefits, the substantial gainful activity amount rules don’t apply either.
What Are the Advantages of Keeping Income Below the “ Trial Work Period Services” Amount?
The trial work period rules allow a person to earn any amount per month for nine months and still receive full monthly disability benefits. These rules allow you to test your ability to return to full-time work without having your monthly disability benefits stop. For example, it is possible to go to work full-time for eight months, during which time you would get paid for full-time work and receive your Social Security disability benefits too. If at the end of eight months of work, you decide that you cannot continue, there would be no harm done to your ongoing disability benefits. You’ll keep your benefits as long as you don’t medically improve.
But people often use up their trial work period months by working part-time. Indeed, some people, who worked part-time while their claims were pending, were surprised to discover that they used up their trial work period months even before SSA found them disabled. If your income exceeds the trial work period services monthly amount for nine months at any time since you applied for benefits, even if those nine months are not consecutive, you will have used up your trial work period. A trial work period month here and a trial work period month there counts as long as all nine months are in any five-year period. Once you use up your nine-month trial work period, it is gone.
People who have already used up their nine-month trial work periods by working part-time are surprised when SSA abruptly stops their benefits. For example, if your trial work period has already been used up, and then you go to work full-time for eight months, your benefits will be stopped after only three months of work. You’ll probably be able to get your benefits back if you stop working within three years after you used up your nine trial work period months, but then if you work again at the substantial gainful activity level more than three years after you used up your trial work period, SSA is supposed to stop your benefits with the first month of work. If you’re unable to continue working at that point (that is, more than three years after the end of the trial work period), you’ll have more difficulty getting your benefits reinstated.
In short, it is best not to use up your trial work period until you are ready to return to work full-time. Because the trial work period can be valuable, we recommend that you not waste it on part-time work. To keep from wasting the trial work period, you need to keep your monthly income below the trial work period services amount.
When I Am Trying to Keep My Income Below the Trial Work Period Services Monthly Amount, Is It Gross Income or Take-Home Pay That Counts?
Gross income. And that gross income is not averaged over months worked. The trial work period services monthly income rules are very strict. There are no deductions that can be taken against your gross income to reduce it below the trial work period services monthly amount.
If I Need More Income Than the Trial Work Period Rules Allow, What Are the Rules for Working at Less Than the “Substantial Gainful Activity” Level?
Gross income counts, but income is averaged. Theoretically, you get to subtract sick pay, vacation pay, and what SSA calls “impairment-related work expenses,” which, as a rule, are the amounts of out-of-pocket payments you make in order to treat your disabling impairment, but there may be some other work expenses that can be deducted too.
You’ll need to consult with your attorney or someone at SSA about these deductions because many things you might think are deductible, like health insurance, are not deductible. These deductions can be used to reduce your countable income below the substantial gainful activity level. But if you rely on such deductions to keep your income below the substantial gainful activity amount, you’re really living dangerously.
It is safer just to use the substantial gainful activity amount as your guideline and make sure your average monthly gross earnings do not exceed this amount.
Is It Possible to Work Part-Time at My Own Business?
It is possible, even though SSA’s rules allow it to find that a person who is working part-time in his or her own business and actually losing money (as many business owners do when they first open their businesses) is engaging in substantial gainful activity.
Benefits can be lost on this basis alone, though this is unusual. Also, even if you are losing money, but you are working more than 80 hours per month, SSA will find that you are performing trial work period services. Thus, you will be using up your trial work period.
When Must I Report My Work Income to SSA?
If you are receiving SSI benefits, you must report the income you receive in one month by the tenth of the next month.
If you are receiving Social Security disability benefits, SSA requires that you report “promptly” when you go to work or start your own business. Thus, you need to tell SSA right away that you are trying to work.
But nowhere does SSA provide a clear statement when you need to send SSA copies of check stubs and proof of any impairment-related work expenses. Thus, you’re likely to be told different things by different people at SSA. The general rule is that you must report earnings early enough to avoid an overpayment. But if you’re keeping your income below the substantial gainful activity amount, you won’t have an overpayment (unless you make a mistake).
When you telephone SSA to report that you have begun work, ask when you need to provide income documentation. Because different rules apply, make sure that the SSA representative understands that you are receiving disability benefits, not retirement benefits. Be sure to get the name and location of the person you speak with. Follow up with a letter to your local office, which explains that you have started working and repeats what you were told about reporting income. Keep a copy of the letter.
Will SSA Conduct Medical Review During Trial Work Period?
A trial work period ends after a recipient performs services in nine months during a rolling period of 60 months. 20 C.F.R. §404.1592(e)(2). But it can also end earlier. According to 20 C.F.R. §404.1592(e)(3), it can end:
The month in which new evidence, other than evidence relating to any work you did during the trial work period, shows that you are not disabled, even though you have not worked a full nine months. We may find that your disability has ended at any time during the trial work period if the medical or other evidence shows that you are no longer disabled. See §404.1594 for information on how we decide whether your disability continues or ends.
Note that in order for the trial work period to end and benefits to be terminated before the nine months of trial work are used up, SSA must have new evidence of improvement other than evidence relating to the work done by the recipient. This provision is meant as a work incentive. It is the SSA’s way of providing that the work itself won’t be used against the recipient.
For SSA to discover new evidence of improvement, it must conduct a continuing disability review (CDR). In fact, a return to work is a trigger for a CDR. According to 20 C.F.R. §404.1590(b), SSA will start a CDR under the following circumstances:
Substantial earnings are reported to your wage record;
You tell us that—. . .
You have returned to work;
Your State Vocational Rehabilitation Agency tells us that—. . .
You are now working;
Someone in a position to know of your physical or mental condition tells us any of the following, and it appears that the report could be substantially correct: . . .
You have returned to work;
In other words, if the recipient reports that he has returned to work or if anyone else reports that the recipient has returned to work, the regulations provide that SSA will conduct a CDR. Although SSA provides the trial work period as an incentive for recipients to return to work, the specter of a CDR operates as a distinct disincentive for return to work.
In order to increase the incentive for returning to work, an exception exists for those who have received disability benefits for at least 24 months. For such recipients, SSA will not start a medical continuing disability review based solely on a report of work activity. Nevertheless, although recipients of disability benefits who have received benefits for 24 months are protected from SSA initiating a continuing disability review solely because of work activity, such recipients are subject to regularly scheduled medical CDRs and medical CDRs that are initiated for other reasons.
Seek Expert Legal Assistance During a CDR
Seeking legal advice and assistance with a Social Security Disability Attorney can also greatly increase your chances of keeping your benefits during a CDR. Attorney Barry Salzman has the knowledge and experience to guide you through the complex process of filing a social security disability claim. If you are concerned about your benefits or facing a CDR, please don’t hesitate to contact us or call (727) 334-7547.