Social security disability (SSD) benefits are crucial if a medical condition or disability prevents you from working. These monthly benefits provide needed funds to replace your lost income and, provided you continue to meet the Social Security Administration (SSA) disability criteria, will continue to be paid until your disability ends or you reach retirement age, whichever comes first.

Proving that you meet the SSA’s definition of disability is the first step in qualifying for SSD benefits. But even if an applicant meets that high threshold, it doesn’t mean automatic approval for SSD benefits. Eligibility for SSD benefits also depends on the disability interfering with your ability to work. One way of proving that is showing you are unable to participate in substantial gainful activity, or SGA.


What is considered substantial gainful activity?

Substantial gainful activity is a monthly earnings threshold established by the SSA. Earn below that amount, and there’s a good chance the SSA will consider you unable to participate in SGA, making you eligible for SSD benefits. 

The SGA amount changes annually. In 2021, an individual can earn no more than $1,310 each month to be eligible for SSD benefits. The SGA amount is higher – $2,190 per month – if you are statutorily blind.

However, there are some exceptions. It is possible to earn more than SGA and remain eligible for SSD benefits. Certain income, such as alimony, is not counted against the SGA limits, even though it is counted as income for tax purposes. If you earned more than SGA working irregular hours or required special accommodations to perform your job, the SSA may also choose not to count that income as earnings for SGA purposes.

It is also possible to earn less than SGA and still be ineligible for SSD benefits. Your disability must prevent you not just from working your current job; it must also prevent you from doing any work that you are qualified to do based on your age, education, and experience.

For example, if your disability prevents you from performing your job as an administrative assistant at a construction company because it requires heavy lifting, the SSA could decide that you are ineligible for SSD benefits because there are similar positions available that do not require lifting. You may also be ineligible for SSD benefits if you can perform your current job with accommodations, such as if your employer agrees to purchase a specific desk chair to alleviate back pain that prohibits you from sitting for long periods.


Trial work period and SSD benefits

The SSA requires people to return to work when their disability allows. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to know whether you can return to work without actually going back and trying to perform the job. For these reasons, the SSA created the Trial Work Period.

A trial work period lets an SSD recipient return to work to determine if their medical condition has improved enough to let them return to the workforce full time. During the trial work period, SSD recipients continue to receive their full benefit amount, even if their monthly earnings exceed SGA.

The SSA considers a return to work a trial work period if you earn more than $940 per month. The work must be performed for nine months over a rolling 60-month (five year) period, although those months do not need to be consecutive. That means if you successfully work three months out of every year for the next four years, and earn more than $940 per month, the SSA may consider you able to return to work and terminate SSD benefits. You must report all earnings during your trial work period to the SSA.


SSI benefits and substantial gainful activity

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a separate government program that provides benefits to very low-income individuals who are blind, disabled, or elderly. Eligibility for SSI benefits is tied to an income level different from SGA. To be eligible for SSI benefits, in addition to meeting the blind, aged, and/or disabled criteria, recipients can not earn more than $794 per month for individuals, or $1,191 for a married couple. It is possible to receive both SSI and SSD benefits, if your SSD benefits amount falls below the SSI income levels.


The attorneys at The Good Law Group leverage more than 30 years combined experience helping individuals unable to work due to their medical condition or disability obtain SSD benefits. The initial consultation is free, and you pay no attorney’s fees unless you are awarded benefits. Call us at 800-419-7606 to schedule an appointment.