A common question I get each while talking to prospective clients is whether a person can keep working while applying for disability. Frequently, callers are baffled when I advise that “no, you cannot work and simultaneously apply for disability.” Also, I do not accept prospective clients that are still working. First, let’s define “work.” Social Security defines work as “substantial gainful activity” or “SGA” SGA means that you are earning $1170 a month in gross income (in 2018 this amount will be $1180). If you are legally blind, this amount is $1950. SSA does not care how much your bills are each month; it only evaluates monthly gross income. If you are earning SGA, then you cannot be disabled. That will be the end of your disability application and no medical evaluation of your disability will need to take place.
Now does that mean that you can earn just under SGA and be successful on a disability application? Practically speaking, the answer is no. Usually, claimants (people applying for disability) that work in the upper end of this number or just at SGA are not successful either. Probably because while the claimant is not technically barred from receiving disability, the ability to work and earn income close to SGA suggests that they could earn SGA. Thus, these claims also usually fail.
When I explain this to callers, many are aghast that they might have to wait two years on a decision on a disability application while also not being able to earn an income of any sort. I agree – that is a dilemma. What do people do? First, if you have a chronic condition, you might want to plan ahead. If your employer offers disability insurance, then buy it. Buy it even if you are healthy. Many of clients with long-term disability insurance weathered the long wait time for Social Security Disability because they had private insurance payments coming in each month. Without private insurance, my clients have downsized, exhausted savings, and borrowed from family. These are not ideal plans, but it is a gap filler while awaiting Social Security disability benefits. Delay times at this administration are not improving. So preparing financially to be without an income for two years is a good idea.