Is it true you can’t work and get disability?


Q. I have a cousin, age 50, with special needs. She has received Social Security benefits all her life. Her parents were told back then that although she could get a menial job, if she worked, her benefits would stop and could not be reinstated. So this kind, simple person has never worked. Is this how it still works?
— Cousin

A. Working could indeed hurt your cousin’s eligibility for benefits.

Here’s how Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) works.

Generally, SSDI recipients cannot have “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) and continue to receive disability benefits, said Michael Green, a certified financial planner with Wechter Feldman Wealth Management in Parsippany.

SGA means you are working and making more than $1,220 per month in 2019 or $2,040 if you’re blind, he said.

“Many disability lawyers and representatives will advise their clients not to work while their case is pending,” Green said. “The mere fact that you are working, even if you are making less than $1,220 per month, may influence the attitude that a disability claims examiner or a disability judge has about your claim, especially if you’re working more than 15 or 20 hours a week.”

On the other hand, earning a high wage does not necessarily mean that you are performing substantial gainful activity, Green said. You could be working under special conditions that cater to your disability, which is not a true representation of your ability to work, he said.

If you make over the SGA income limit amount when you apply for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will almost certainly deny your application, Green said.

“But if it can be proven that your work does not count as substantial gainful activity, even if you are over the income limit, you may be passed on to the next step in the SSA’s evaluation process, which is an evaluation of your medical eligibility,” he said.

If you are confused about SGA or the income limits, or need help applying for benefits or appealing a denial of benefits with the SSA, consider hiring a disability benefits lawyer or advocate for your cousin.

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This story was originally published on Oct. 30, 2019. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.