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Can You Work While on Social Security?

July/August 2000

Se-cu-ri-ty \si-'kyur-e-tee\ n. Freedom from want or deprivation.

According to this definition, there's not much security in Social Security. If you're getting SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) anywhere in the nation, you're probably getting between $500 and $1200 a month. Ouch. And in Illinois, if you're getting SSI (Supplemental Security Income) you're receiving a maximum of $512 a month -- that is, if you're living alone. If you're married, or living in someone else's household, you're getting only $341 a month. Youch! Who, one wonders, can actually live on such amounts? For most people, being on Social Security means living in constant want and deprivation.

Of course states with more enlightened legislatures than Illinois (they're not hard to find) offer a supplement to federal SSI, increasing your monthly check. In Nevada, a standard SSI check for an individual is $548. In New York it's $599. And in California it's a whopping $692. Still, nobody on SSI receives a check large enough to get them above the federal poverty line.

So it's no surprise that lots of folks who receive Social Security benefits want to get some kind of part-time job to help make ends meet -- or at least bring ends a little closer together. But can you work and receive Social Security benefits at the same time? Aren't those benefits supposed to be only for people who are disabled and cannot work? Will your check stop if you take a job? If so, how quickly?

People call me with these questions at least once a week. More often than not, they've already called Social Security repeatedly and encountered either a busy signal or an idiot. If I had a dollar for every caller who's been told the wrong information by a Social Security worker, I could afford my own island off the Amalfi Coast. So if you're wondering how a job will affect your Social Security check, remember one simple rule: never trust anything a government worker tells you. Check with a lawyer or legal advocate before you do anything.

It's not impossible to work and receive a Social Security check at the same time. But some serious problems can arise if you don't know the rules before you start. And the rules are entirely different for SSI and SSDI. So let's all take a deep breath, think pleasant thoughts, and plunge into the nasty thicket of Social Security regulations.

Let's start with SSI, since the rules for returning to work from SSI really stink, and I prefer to get the depressing stuff out of the way as quickly as possible. The Wonderful Wizard of Social Security has invented something known as "instant budgeting," which in a nutshell means this: when you start making money, your pitifully small SSI check shrinks even further.

Here's how it works. First of all, SSI will not count the first $85 you make each month before taxes. In other words, you can make up to $85 dollars a month and it will not affect your check at all. Social Security regulations say that you must report any change of income within 10 days, even if it's less than $85. So you should let Social Security know you made some money, but if it stays under $85 a month your check will remain the same.

However, if you make more than $85 in a month -- and how many people have jobs that pay less than $85 a month? -- then your check starts going down, based on a two-for-one formula. For every two dollars you earn, your check goes down one dollar.

So let's imagine you're on SSI, and you earn $285 dollars in a month. You reported the income to Social Security within 10 days of receiving it, just like you were supposed to. How big will your check be the following month? Social Security will not count your first $85 of income, so they'll only count $200 of your earnings. And using their two-for-one instant budgeting, they'll take half of that amount -- $100 -- and subtract it from your check. So your monthly check will shrink by $100, to $412. I guess you won't be buying that diamond tiara after all. (Your earned income may also affect your Medicaid eligibility, but the rules vary greatly from state to state. Check with a legal advocate in your area.)

Okay, on to SSDI, where you've actually got some room to maneuver. Just like SSI, you are supposed to report any change of income to Social Security within 10 days. But unlike SSI, your check won't be affected for quite a while.

If you're on SSDI, you are entitled to a "trial work period" so you can test your ability to hold a job. During your trial work period, you can make as much money as you want and your check won't be affected at all. This may be the one good idea the Wonderful Wizard of Social Security ever had. Your trial work period is nine months long, and those months don't have to be consecutive; any nine months over a five-year period can count.

Any month that you earn more than $200 before taxes counts as a trial work period month. After you've earned more than $200 a month for nine months, your trial work period is officially over, although Social Security then gives you a three-month grace period, meaning that your trial work period is actually 12 months long. And remember, during your trial work period you receive your full SSDI check.

Here's the tricky part. Once your trial work period starts, Social Security will schedule you for a "continuing disability review" (CDR). The point of a CDR is to determine if you are still disabled by Social Security's standards, based solely on medical evidence. In other words, they cannot use your income level or your work hours to deny you disability; they must instead evaluate whether you have had enough "medical improvement" to render you no longer disabled.

When your CDR is finished, one of three things will happen:

1. If Social Security determines that you are no longer disabled due to medical improvement, your SSDI check will stop.

2. If Social Security determines that you are still disabled, and you are earning less than $700 a month before taxes, your SSDI check will continue as before.

3. If Social Security determines that you are still disabled, and you are earning more than $700 a month before taxes, your SSDI check will stop.

So as you can see, it is awfully important to "pass" your CDR so that Social Security will find you to be disabled despite your ability to work. If you pass your CDR and you earn only $600 dollars a month, for example, your SSDI will continue as before. You're working and receiving full benefits, and hopefully your quality of life improves substantially.

Since the CDR is based on medical evidence, it's imperative that you see your doctor regularly during your trial work period -- and even before you begin your trial work period -- to tell your doctor every symptom and limitation you have. I advise my clients to keep a daily journal of all their health problems so that they don't forget just how lousy they felt three weeks before their appointment. And even if you've told your doctor about your diarrhea and your fatigue 10 times before, tell him again, and insist he write it down. If these symptoms aren't in your medical records every time you visit your doctor, Social Security may think the problems have resolved.

It's especially important to see your doctor regularly because you never know when Social Security is going to schedule your CDR. Typically they do it near the end of your trial work period. But they could do it during your first month of work. And if you haven't gone to your doctor in six months, and if your doctor wrote "feeling fine" in your records back then, Social Security might just decide you're not disabled anymore -- and your check will stop immediately. Your trial work period is over after one month because Social Security says you're no longer disabled.

So as you can see, being on Social Security doesn't necessarily mean you can't earn any money at all. And now that you know the rules, perhaps you can make the system work to your benefit. That would be a terrific change, now wouldn't it?

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.