Social Security Disability: The Trial Work Period and Beyond

The trial work period (TWP) often is misunderstood by people who receive Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits and want to supplement this income by working. You need to be aware of the impact of the TWP before you accept even a part-time job because you could end up losing your SSD benefits and, at some point, find yourself unable to remain in the workforce, leaving you without a steady income.

The trial work period can be difficult to understand because, as often is the case with the Social Security Administration, it often is a lengthy process that has various exceptions. Knowing what the trial work period really means and what rights you have after the end of your TWP can help you to protect yourself from significant difficulties later on.

The first thing to remember is that a trial work period applies only if you receive Social Security Disability. Anyone who only receives Supplemental Security Income, for example, does not have to worry about the meaning of a trial work period. However, you receive SSD (which, in general, is based on your work record), you need to be aware of the impact of completing a TWP.

As suggested above, you really must understand what a “trial work period” actually is before you make plans to attempt to get a job to increase your income.. The Social Security Administration allows people who are disabled to try to return to the work. The TWP looks at work during any period of 60 consecutive months after a person becomes eligible for SSD benefits. If, within any 60-month period after this, there are nine months in which your earnings are at or above a specific amount set by the Social Security Administration prior to each year, then you have completed the trial work period.

SSD recipients sometimes assume that this income level equals the amount for Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), which are the standard usually used in disability determinations. Actually, income earned during any of the nine months needed to complete a trial work period is around 72 percent of the SGA level. For example, if you worked in 2012 (when SGA was $1010 per month) and earned at least $720 in four months and then earned at least $750 in another four months this year (when SGA equaled earnings of $1050), then you will complete your trial work period after the first month in 2014 that you earn $770 since your earnings in nine months from 2012 into 2014 would be at or above the levels set by the Social Security Administration. It also is important to remember that, counting the initial month of the TWP (which is when your earned income first was greater than the permissible monthly amount), you have to be concerned for 60 consecutive months that your gross earnings do not exceed the monthly level during eight additional months within this period

However, even though the trial work period will end when you have “excessive” income in nine of 60 (or fewer) months, all is not lost in terms of benefits. After the TWP ends, you are entitled to an “Extended Period of Eligibility” (EPE), which lasts for 36 months immediately following the final month of your trial work period. You are eligible for your SSD benefits in any month of this three-year period that your earnings drop below the Substantial Gain Activity level (which is higher than TWP earnings, as explained above). SGA earnings will rise to $1070 in 2014. This payment of SSD benefits will occur during the EPE as long as you have not had a medical improvement that ends your disabling condition – this improvement would end any right to disability benefits. During your Extended Period of Eligibility, you will not receive SSD in any month when your gross earnings are above the Substantial Gainful Activity level. However, because your earned income (and not your health) is the reason that you are not disabled, your case is viewed accordingly. Since your disabling impairment continues, whenever your gross earnings fall below the SGA level, you will receive your monthly SSD payment without having to reapply for disability.

Once the 3-year EPE ends, your right to SSD also can end quickly. In the 37th month after the trial work period ended, you still can receive your SSD benefits as long as you remain medically disabled. Your SSD benefits can continue on a monthly basis until there is a month when your earnings reach the SGA level. When this occurs, you would receive your full SSD benefits for three more months, at which time these payments generally end. There is an exception to this rule, however.

For the first five years after your Extended Period of Eligibility ends, if you cannot continue working at the SGA level due to the disabling impairment that originally made you eligible for SSD, you can request to have your benefits reinstated without being forced to reapply, which would mean starting from the beginning as you did when you first are awarded disability benefits. Instead of a new application, you would request Expedited Re-Instatement, which is a potential way to regain disability benefits that stopped only because of your work and earnings.

The major point to gain from understanding the trial work period and the steps after its completion is that you do not have to avoid working (or attempt to hide this fact from the government) if you receive Social Security Disability. Instead, this shows how you can test your ability to work again, allowing you to find out what your capabilities are despite having a disabling impairment. It also highlights the importance of knowing what the consequences of making this decision if you do not take the time to learn what is permitted under the regulations of the Social Security Administration.