One of the purposes of the Social Security Disability program is to provide financial help to those who suffer from a disability so severe that it limits you form being able to work full time. Although there are some ways you can get away with working part time, if you make too much money you will be denied. Here is why.

Substantial Gainful Activity (Sga)

When evaluating a disability claim, one of the first things that the Social Security administration looks for is whether you are earning what it calls “Substantial Gainful Activity” (SGA). This actually happens BEFORE the SSA will even look at your medical condition. SSA has defined SGA as any work activity that brings in over a certain dollar amount per month. The dollar amount changes each year for inflation. (In 2013 that amount equaled $1,400 per month). SSA figures that if you can earn over this amount, you must not be “disabled” and you will be denied immediately.

Although this rule seems harsh and oversimplified, there are several exceptions outlined below. If you are not engaged in work that earns over $1,040, SSA will then, and only then, consider your medical condition.

Exceptions to the Rule

Unearned Income

There is some income that is not actually earned. For example, gifts, workers’ comp, insurance payments, passive income, or delayed payments do not require any specific work “activity” and would therefore be excluded from the SGA evaluation.

Disguised Earnings: Both Low and High

If you trying to hide your earnings by being underpaid, SSA will look at the fair market value of the activity. The SSA can even treat volunteer work or criminal activities as SGA if the activity perform would typically receive compensation in excess of the monthly SGA amount. This cuts both ways however. If someone, such as a mentally challenged person bagging groceries is overly compensated, then this type of subsidized employment will not be included.

In sum, SSA will first look at the actual dollar amount paid and will then consider all the facts to see if someone’s work was actually worth more or less than the SGA amount.

Unsuccessful Work Attempt

If you worked for six months or less and you decreased your amount of work as a result of your medical problems, then the money earned during that time is excluded from an SGA evaluation.

Work Incentives for Those Receiving Benefits

There are a number of programs designed to motivate people to try going back to work. These programs include the Plan to Achieve Self Support, (PASS) and the ticket to work program.

Practical Implications

The extent of your work will have a practical impact on your judge. The judge will look at your dollars earned, hours spent, and the physical or mental demands of your job. For example, even though you might be working less than full time making less than SGA, if it is a job on a construction site where you lift up to 100 pounds all day, the judge might wonder if you could work a few more hours job that is more light duty.

Another example might be if you are making 1,039 dollars a month ($1 shy). The judge will most likely think “is he physically unable to earn that last dollar or is someone gaming the system”?


Like disguised earnings, SSA will look at the fair market value of your self-employment activities. Your business activity will be considered SGA if you:

  • Engage in activities that is similar to the work that other people (without disabilities) perform in your community or similar businesses, or
  • Engage in activities that is worth at least $1,040 per month to the business.

To learn more about applying for Social Security benefits, how to apply, and if you might qualify, ask your Social Security Attorney who understands both the rules and the exceptions to the rules.