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How Will It Affect My SSDI Benefits If I Return To Work?

I presently draw SSDI and need to understand how returning to work would affect my future SSI benefits, so please allow me set my question up.

My initial disability was covered by a private (employer/MetLife) disability claim, through my employer. Part of the disability contract requirement for my claim was that I also make a claim for SSDI, so that my employer would only have to pay the benefit amount that was in excess of the SSDI payment. Shamefully, my employer used a high-power law firm to push my SSDI claim through in record time, and although initially denied twice, I never had to go face-to-face with an administrative judge (the judge's attorney handled it by questionnaire, then made me an offer - but granted, part of my disability has to do with my mental health and poor communication skills).

I was at the pinnacle of my career and my disability claim was quite substantial, as is the SSDI claim that is still being paid to me, 10 years later. In 2017, because of substantial debt, I took an offer from my employer (managed by MetLife) to settle my claim in lump sum, which was just enough to pay all my debt, but I felt the freedom from debt was worth it and my SSDI check was enough (with my wife working) to still pay our regular monthly expenses .

This brings me to my question: I had been making a moderate-to-high, five-figure income for about 10 years, prior to my becoming disabled, so my SSDI benefit is quite substantial. However, I now have 10+ years without any earned income to bolster my total SSI contribution, and I fear that trying to work part time would somehow compromise my future SSI benefits. I have not been able to get any clear answers from non-government sources on how this really works, and I really don't trust that the person on the other end of a of a phone call to Social Security would truly know the answer to this.

I am presently enrolled in the SSDI P.O.D. program, but I'm not able to find work in my field that doesn't require too many hours and/or lacks the flexibility to accommodate me during times where my diseases (I have several) are exacerbated. Jobs outside of my field (I mine SQL software databases and create reports) cause me great anxiety due to my poor verbal communication skills. I simply cannot speak the same as what I write. Finally, I could possibly try to freelance in my field of expertise to accommodate my needed flexibility, but setting up such a scenario generally requires the necessary verbal communication that I am so poor at.

Thanks for your help,
Steve

Hi Steve,

Assuming that you haven't previously worked while entitled to Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits, you'd have a 9 month trial work period (TWP) available to you. What that means is that for 9 months you could earn an unlimited amount without jeopardizing your benefits (https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10095.pdf).

Once your 9 month TWP is completed you could continue to receive SSDI benefits indefinitely as long as you don't earn more than the amount that Social Security considers to be substantial gainful activity (SGA). In 2021, the monthly SGA amount for non-blind individuals is $1310. If you perform SGA level work after your TWP is completed, your Social Security benefits could be suspended and eventually terminated. Even if your work is determined to be SGA, however, you would be eligible for an extended period of eligibility (EPE). The EPE lasts for at least 36 months from the end of your TWP. If your SSDI benefits are suspended due to your earnings, your benefits could be reinstated during your EPE if you stop work or if your earnings drop below SGA level. And, if your benefits are reinstated during an EPE your benefits can continue to be paid indefinitely as long as you don't resume working at above SGA level.

As for your benefit rate, if your SSDI benefits are never terminated due to work or improvement in your medical condition, your SSDI benefits would convert to regular Social Security retirement benefits at the same benefit rate when you reach full retirement age (FRA). However, if your SSDI entitlement is terminated before you reach FRA then your eventual Social Security retirement benefit rate would be calculated using a modified benefit calculation formula. Normally Social Security retirement benefits are calculated based on an average of a person's highest 35 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings, but years within a period of SSDI entitlement are excluded.

For example, say that a person is entitled to SSDI benefits for 10 years and then their SSDI entitlement terminates due to a return to work. When that person eventually files for Social Security retirement benefits their benefit rate would be calculated based on an average of their highest 25 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings instead of 35 years. Thus, the 10 year period during which the person was disabled and not working would not dilute the average earnings on which their Social Security retirement benefit rate is based.

So, to sum up, other than for cost of living (COLA) increases your benefit rate probably won't change materially unless your SSDI benefits are terminated before you reach FRA. If your SSDI benefits do get terminated, your eventual Social Security retirement benefit rate could be lower than your SSDI rate if your future earnings end up averaging lower than the average earnings on which your current SSDI benefit rate is calculated. Conversely, though, if your future earnings are high enough to increase the average earnings on which future Social Security retirement rate is based, you could potentially end up with a benefit rate that's higher than your SSDI rate.

Best, Jerry

Posted: 
Dec 3 2020 - 2:25pm
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