Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Will my benefit increase if I work while collecting disability?

Published 3:22 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens

Dear Rusty: I will be 64 in March and currently receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments. My full retirement age is 67, but I’m thinking about trying to return to work.

If I work and my earnings exceed the monthly disability payment limits, but do not exceed the annual limit, how will my disability payments be affected? Will working while receiving Social Security disability payments change my Social Security benefit amount when I reach my full retirement age of 67? Signed: Mending

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Dear Mending: Social Security doesn’t go by annual earnings when it comes to disability (SSDI) – they go by monthly earnings. If your work earnings in any one month of 2024 exceed $1,550, that will be a flag to Social Security that you are no longer disabled ($2,590 per month if you’re blind). If that happens for a few months in a row, they will most likely stop your SSDI payments. Often, this happens retroactively – they won’t find out until sometime later that you repeatedly exceeded the monthly limit – but they will likely cancel your SSDI benefits and require you to repay any benefits you received in months you exceeded the monthly SSDI earnings limit, or months they deem you were capable of working without restriction.

I suggest you consider enrolling in Social Security’s “Ticket to Work” program. While enrolled, you can work and will have a rolling nine month “Trial Work Period” over five years, during which you can earn more than $1,110/month (in 2024) without jeopardizing your SSDI benefits. If, after completing your nine month trial work period, you are taken off of SSDI (because you’re no longer considered disabled), and you again become disabled and unable to work, your SSDI benefits can resume without requiring you to go through the entire application process again. You can test your ability to work, will be able to work some and can earn more than the limit in some months, which makes the Ticket to Work program your best option. Read more about it here:

As for whether working while on SSDI will improve your benefit at your full retirement age (FRA), that depends. Your current SSDI benefit is equal to your FRA entitlement from your earnings record at your disability onset date (but paid to you prior to your FRA). The method for determining your benefit under SSDI is complex and depends on the age at which you became unable to work and the number of Social Security credits you had accumulated at that time. Although Social Security retirement benefits normally require you earn at least 40 Social Security quarter credits and are based on your highest earning 35 years, those approved for SSDI can get benefits with fewer than 40 credits and less than 35 years of lifetime earnings. Since each case is unique, I cannot say whether your earnings while on SSDI will improve your FRA amount, but Social Security will monitor your earnings and increase your benefit if appropriate.

FYI, your SSDI benefit would normally automatically convert to become your regular Social Security retirement benefit at your FRA at the same amount you were receiving while on SSDI. It’s possible that the limited earnings you may have from working while on SSDI may increase your benefit, but that’s impossible for me to predict. Your benefit is based on your lifetime earnings history (adjusted for inflation), not on your contributions to Social Security while working.

So, if you are on SSDI and wish to try returning to work, and you think your monthly earnings will occasionally exceed the SSDI limit, I suggest you contact Social Security (1-800-772-1213 or your local office) to explore enrolling in the Ticket to Work program. That would be your best option to avoid jeopardizing your SSDI benefits, and your benefit amount will be automatically adjusted by Social Security if appropriate.