How Much Can You Earn and Still Qualify for Social Security Disability?

Paycheck With Money and a CalculatorSocial Security disability is not like other types of disability benefits. You are only eligible for Social Security disability if you have a total disability.

Generally, Social Security disability applies when you can’t work because of your disability. However, there are exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, you can be eligible for Social Security disability if you work a little bit, as long as you don’t engage in substantial gainful activity.

Understanding Substantial Gainful Activity

Whether you are applying for Social Security disability benefits for the first time or you are appealing a denied Social Security disability application, it is essential to understand how much money you can earn while remaining eligible for Social Security disability benefits and how work of any kind may impact your eligibility.

Substantial gainful activity refers to a certain amount of money identified in Social Security disability law. If you earn above the substantial gainful activity threshold, then the Social Security Administration will find that you can work, subject to a few exceptions, which will be discussed below.

How Much Can I Earn?

The exact dollar amount changes each year based on the National Average Wage Index. In 2020, substantial gainful activity was defined as earnings over $2,110 per month for individuals who are blind and $1,260 per month for individuals with other disabilities.

If you earn more than the substantial gainful activity threshold, then the Social Security Administration rules say that you are engaged in substantial gainful activity, and you are not disabled to the point that you need disability benefits.

However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. You may earn more than the substantial gainful activity amount, and still qualify for Social Security disability if:

  • Your average monthly income remains below the substantial gainful activity threshold. For example, maybe you earn a little more than this year’s substantial gainful activity amount because you work extra hours over the December holidays, the summer tourist season, or before the April 15 tax deadline, but you earn less than the substantial gainful activity amount during other months. In this type of situation, the Social Security Administration should consider your average monthly earnings rather than your highest monthly earnings.
  • You were able to continue working because your employer provided you special assistance to do your job. This could apply if, for example, you were given special provisions to do your job, such as extended break times and odd working hours. It could also apply if an understanding relative or close friend employed you, and you were not required to meet the same level of output and productivity as your colleagues.
  • You need special equipment to make it easier to do your job. You or your employer may provide this equipment. If you pay for your equipment, then the cost of the equipment should be deducted from earnings, which could put you below the substantial gainful activity threshold.

What If I Earn Less?

Generally, if you earn less than the legal threshold, the Social Security Administration may find that you can’t engage in substantial employment, and you may qualify for benefits. However, earning below the substantial gainful activity threshold does not guarantee that you will be approved for Social Security disability. For example, the Social Security Administration may consider whether you could have worked more hours and made more money.

Qualifying for Social Security Disability Shouldn’t Be Complicated 

Unfortunately, the Social Security disability rules are complex, and the majority of initial applications are denied.

There is help available, however. Hiring an experienced Social Security disability lawyer can take away the frustration of the Social Security Administration’s complex rules and help you maximize your chances of getting the benefits that you’ve earned.

If you are working while applying for Social Security disability or thinking about returning to work, then the amount that you earn each month, if any, will play a significant role in determining whether you are approved or denied.

Learn about this and other factors that could influence whether your Social Security disability application is approved by calling us today for a free consultation or downloading a free copy of our book, Unlocking the Mystery: The Essential Guide for Navigating the Social Security Disability Claims Process.

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