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Most years the cost of living increases, which results in slight changes in the numbers used by SSA in its disability programs, and it is important to use the correct numbers. The following is a chart of some of the changes between 2020 and 2021: 

  2020   2021 
 Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) monthly earnings     
 If you are not blind  $1260   $1310 
 If you are blind   $2110  $2190 
 Trial Work Period (TWP) level of monthly earnings  $910  $940 
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monthly benefit amount     
 For an individual   $783  $794 
 For a couple living together who are both disabled  $1175  $1191 
 Quarter of Coverage earnings amount  $1410  $1470 


Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)  2021 Numbers from the Social Security Administration (SSA)

Step 1 of the disability determination process is whether or not you are “working.” SSA defines work as the ability to engage in SGA. Unless you are self-employed, this is simply measured as a dollar amount. So, in 2021, if you are working and able to earn $1310 (gross, before taxes are taken out of your paycheck), you are engaged in SGA and SSA will determine you are not disabled without analyzing your impairments. If you are working, but earning less than $1310, you are not earning SGA, and your case will proceed to Step 2. 

If you are blind, you may earn up to $2190 before SSA determines that you are engaged in SGA. 

Special rules apply to self-employed individuals. If you are self-employed but believe that you are disabled, you should bring your income information to your local SSA district office. They can determine if your self-employment is SGA, and advise you about the income rules that apply in your particular situation. 

If you are able to work only because of special devices, medications and/or assistance that you pay for out-of-pocket, the cost of these IRWEs (impairment-related work expenses) will be deducted from your income when SGA is determined. For example, if you earn $1500 per month, but have to rent a wheelchair for $200 per month and pay $200 per month for medications to control your symptoms well enough to work, SSA will consider your monthly income to be $1100. Since this is less than $1310, you are not engaged in SGA. 

Trial Work Period (TWP) 

If you have been disabled for at least 12 months, and then return to work, you are eligible for a TWP. During a TWP, you can both receive your Social Security Disability benefits and keep your paycheck regardless of the amount. You can receive up to 9 TWP months. A TWP month is counted only when your income exceeds $940 (in 2021). If you earn less than this, the month is not counted in your 9-month TWP. After your ninth TWP month, your disability will cease in the next month you earn SGA ($1310). 

If you start working while receiving Social Security Disability benefits, you should notify SSA of the dates and amount of your income, in writing, and get a receipt for the notice. SSA will let you know what your reporting requirements are, depending on the amount of your income, and will track your TWP. A receipt of the notice may be important down the road, if SSA loses the information and later assesses you with an overpayment. If you can prove that you notified SSA of the income, it will be easier to claim a waiver of overpayment. 

If you start working while you are in the process of applying for Social Security Disability benefits, provide SSA with copies of your paystubs. If you are represented, be sure to notify your representative of your work activity. If you are able to earn at SGA levels within 12 months of your alleged onset date, your claim will be denied. If it has been longer than 12 months since you last worked, you may be eligible for a closed period of disability or a TWP. 

TWP does not apply in SSI-only cases. 

Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE) 

After completing a TWP, you can begin an Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), for 36 months. This is a work incentive to help determine  your eligibility for benefits where your work and earnings based on current SGA levels will be evaluated. (SGA levels for the year of 2021 are listed above.)  

During EPE, a person will receive benefits in every month that a person’s work and earnings are below the current SGA level and disabling impairment is sustained. The Social Security Administration will consider if additional work incentives are eligible to be applied as well, such as deducting IRWEs when deciding SGA.  

The first time a person works above SGA levels in this extended period, they will be determined to no longer meet requirements for disability due to work. Disability will be considered “ceased.” When this occurs, benefits will be paid for the month that disability ceased and for two months after. This is known as the grace period. If earnings continue to be below SGA after this,  and you are still within the 36 month period, benefits can restart without a new application.  

Expedited Reinstatement is available and acts as a safety net for anyone who has successfully returned to work and lost their entitlement to disability benefits. If a person has to stop working due to a medical impairment related to the original disability for which benefits were issued within  five years of when benefits stopped, an expedited reinstatement makes it possible to receive benefits again without the need to submit another application.  

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) 

SSI is a needs-based disability program, available for disabled people without significant income or liquid resources, and who do not have an adequate earnings record to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. The SSI benefit amount is the same for everybody, unless you are an essential person, and in 2021 it is $794 per month. Essential persons will receive $397 per month. If you and your spouse live together and are both disabled and financially eligible for SSI, you can receive a total of $1191 per month. This is because SSA assumes you share expenses and therefore need less than twice the single rate. 

Quarters of Coverage 

To qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, you must be “insured” for them. This means that during the 40 quarters prior to the onset date of disability, you worked and paid taxes for 20 quarters. A “quarter” of coverage is measured as a dollar amount, and you can earn four quarters per year. In 2021, a quarter of coverage is defined as $1470 in income. So, if you earn at least $5880, you get all four quarters for the year – regardless of how long it took you to earn that amount. 

If you believe you are disabled and eligible for Social Security Disability or SSI benefits, please call Maddox & Laffoon for a free consultation.