What is “substantial gainful activity” and how will it affect my disability application?

Before your accident you made a decent living. However, now that you have limited mobility, you can only work half the hours you used to work and your family’s income has been drastically reduced. So, instead of saving for family vacations, you’re now counting pennies to pay for your mortgage.

To make matters worse, you applied for disability as soon as you got out of the hospital, and you received a letter from the SSA yesterday. DENIED.

Denied? How can that be? The reason given by the SSA was “doesn’t meet income qualifications.” What does that mean? Your income has been drastically affected as a result of your injury—shouldn’t that qualify for disability benefits? You can no longer make your house payments, let alone pay for your physical therapy. Shouldn’t that mean something to the SSA?

You are left wondering: how is income eligibility calculated?

Substantial Gainful Activity: Not Enough to Live On, But Enough to Deny Your Claim

The term substantial gainful activity (SGA) applies to the notion that you are still able to work enough to earn a “substantial” income. In other words, if your monthly earnings exceed the SGA cap, then the Social Security Administration will conclude that your disability doesn’t need additional financial aid. 

According to SSA regulations, the specified amount allowed for SGA depends on the nature of your disability. Legally blind individuals are given a higher SGA cap than non-blind individuals as specified by the Social Security Act. SGA amounts generally increase each year according to federal cost of living increases. For 2015, the SGA amount for blind workers is $1820 and for non-blind workers, it is $1090. That means if you are not blind and are able to work enough to earn more than $1090 each month, you will not be eligible for disability payments.

Downsizing to Live

It’s an unfortunate fact that those who make more money before an accident tend to lose more money afterward. If your income is greater than the SGA amount, and you’re denied disability benefits, you have no choice but to downsize your lifestyle in order to budget wisely while recovering. Either way, when you’re facing disability issues, it’s always a good idea to discuss your options with an experienced disability lawyer.

Need more information about your rights? Download our free guide on understanding disability: Five Most Frequently Asked Questions About Social Security Disability. You’ll not only learn more about your options, but you’ll also see how our knowledge and experience can help you.

John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer