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Can I work while on Disability? – Substantial Gainful Activity

Appealing for benefits is best done under the guidance of an experienced disability lawyer.

If you cannot earn $1,470/mo because of an injury or illness, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

Author Attorney Greg Reed:
Updated: 1/18/2023

The Social Security Administration defines disability by the inability to earn over the substantial gainful activity limit (SGA). This means even if someone is obviously disabled in the colloquial sense of the word, they may not be disabled in the eyes of Social Security.

Substantial Gainful Activity SGA Texas Social Security Lawyer

If you cannot earn $1,470/mo because of an injury or illness, you are likely eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. Unearned income does not count. Get help from a Texas Social Security Lawyer 512-454-4000

For instance, Stephen Hawking is quite clearly disabled, but he earns a large salary from both his books and his career at Cambridge. If he were American and applied for disability, he would be denied because he is earning over the SGA limit.

Social Security Disability Insurance is not a means-based program in the traditional sense.

Even the very wealthy are eligible to collect disability benefits. However, the purpose of disability insurance is to help those who are unable to work. Social Security defines SGA as monthly wages exceeding $1,470/mo (in 2023). For blind people, the limit is set slightly higher- at $2,460 per month (in 2023). If an applicant earns over the limit, they are ineligible for benefits.

Many people suffer from an injury or illness that makes it much more difficult to work, but does not incapacitate them entirely.

People in this situation often wonder if it is a good idea to go on disability benefits. While every situation is different, in general, a person will make significantly more money doing whatever work they are capable of rather than going on benefits. However, if high medical costs are a concern, those on disability eventually get Medicare which may offset the drop in income. Social Security Disability may sound like a boon to those whose disabilities make it difficult to carry on their current job, but it is really only intended as a last resort for those who have no other way to generate income.

Those on disability eventually get Medicare. Contact an experienced Social Security disability attorney at 512-454-4000 for a FREE Case Evaluation

The SGA limit is set extremely low. $1,470/mo is $17,640/yr, about what a worker would earn at a minimum wage job and slightly higher than the poverty line.

This reinforces the purpose of the program- to be a safety net for those who simply physically or mentally cannot work. However, the low limit makes it difficult for people to transition from work to disability and vice-versa. Most people do not have enough savings to live comfortably from when they become disabled to when they can begin receiving benefits. On the other end, people are discouraged from attempting to work if they are afraid they might lose their benefits.
Lloyd Bemis Social Security Disability Lawyer

SGA is not strictly a dollar amount. It is the principle that the applicant’s activities are worth that dollar amount.

This means that volunteer work could make someone ineligible for benefits if it would normally pay over the SGA limit. Even if the applicant isn’t being paid for the work, if they are capable of doing it, then they are capable of earning over the SGA limit. The same principle applies in more subjective situations. When an applicant runs their own business, SSA looks at whether their work adds value to the business at a rate above the SGA limit.

Contact a Social Security disability attorney at 512-454-4000 for a free consultation and see if you can get disability benefits. If you have been denied disability don’t give up!

There are many types of income that are not considered under the SGA.

Because the SGA is based off capacity to work, unearned income does not count. Income from unemployment benefits, investments, capital gains, rentals, gifts, inheritance or interest is not counted toward the SGA limit because it does not reflect capacity to work. The purpose of this limit is not to prevent those with high incomes from collecting benefits. There is no income limit on benefits so long as that income comes from sources other than work. However, if you are applying for Supplemental Security Income, there is a strict and low limit on countable income.

Code of Federal Regulations § 404.1574 (2) states that only the amount earned is counted.

If someone with a disability is paid a subsidy, any amount over the value of their productivity is not exempt from the substantial gainful activity calculation. Applicants who worked under special conditions- for example, if they were given extra breaks and assistance from other employees- can make the claim that their income was not in line with their actual ability to produce.

For self-employed individuals, determining income can be ambiguous.

The Social Security Administration has three tests to determine if self-employment qualifies as work activity:


  1. You provide significant service to your business and have monthly earnings over the SGA limit. There are many business owners who take a laid-back approach to management and simply reap the profits of their business. This allows them to continue to do that, but prevents them from actively engaging in the actual work.
  2. Your work is comparable to non-disabled people in the same field. The SSA will compare your business to similar businesses to determine the normal level of activity for that type of business.
  3. You produce at a higher level than the SGA limit in terms of value. If you would have to pay an employee more than the SGA limit to do the work you are doing for the business, it will be determined you are not disabled.


Long Term Disability Lawyers

If you are in a situation where you cannot earn $1,470/mo because of an injury or illness, you are likely eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Most initial claims for benefits are denied. If you would like help applying for benefits or fighting a denial, the attorneys at Bemis, Roach and Reed can help. We have experience filing claims and helping applicants get the benefits they need. Contact us today for a free consultation. Call 512-454-4000 and get help NOW.

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Author: Attorney Greg Reed has been practicing law for 29 years. He is Superlawyers rated by Thomson Reuters and is Top AV Preeminent® and Client Champion Gold rated by Martindale Hubbell. Through his extensive litigation Mr. Reed obtained board certification from the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Greg is admitted to practice in the United States District Court – all Texas Districts and the United States Court of Appeals-Fifth Circuit. Mr. Reed is a member of the Travis County Bar Association, Texas Trial Lawyers Association, past Director of the Capital Area Trial Lawyers Association, and an Associate member of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Mr. Reed and all the members of Bemis, Roach & Reed have been active participants in the Travis County Lawyer referral service.

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