What Does the SSA Count as Income in New Hampshire and Elsewhere?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages multiple benefit programs, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Each program has its own set of criteria for qualifying for benefits, but all of them require an applicant to submit income information. SSDI  and SSI claimants in New Hampshire and around the country should understand the types of income considered by the SSA for its various programs and the reasons behind Social Security’s rules with reference to these different types of income.

Income Limits vs. Substantial Gainful Activity

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is specifically intended as a welfare program meant to assist those who are disabled from working and whose household income cause them to fall below federal poverty guidelines and whose assets remain quite limited.  The SSDI program, on the other hand, is geared towards people who likewise remain long-term disabled from working but who have sufficiently paid into the Social Security disability trust fund through their past wages or self-employment income to qualify for an SSDI benefit: these benefits are not needs based benefits (that is to say, welfare based) but rather is income that is in the form of an insurance benefit that one has paid for through their payroll taxes.  While SSDI does take an offset for certain forms of public pension benefits and workers’ compensation benefits, it does not look to whether one is in need of money when determining the benefit: rather the benefit is based on the amount of contributions one made through their payroll taxes.

Whether one is applying for SSI or SSDI, the SSA looks to see whether a claimant remains capable of undertaking work that rises to the level of “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) on a “regular and continuing basis.”  A person who is deemed capable of performing SGA level earnings is not considered disabled and therefore is not eligible for SSDI benefits. The determination can be very complicated, but SSA has established that income received from employment or other work at or above a certain level constitutes evidence of the ability to undertake “gainful “activity.  In 2015, income of at least $1,090 per month for a non-blind claimant, or $1,820 per month for a blind claimant, is considered to be “gainful” activity.  SSA Levels  SSA defines Substantial Gainful Activity is defined as significant physical and/or mental activities ordinarily performed for profit or pay.  Social Security Handbook Section 603  Social Security Ruling 96-8P makes clear that a “regular and continuing basis” generally means 8 hours a day, 40 hours per week. There are many times when an individual’s earnings fluctuate vastly from one month to another given the episodic nature of their disabling medical impairments: in such situations, it becomes imperative that one speak with an experienced Social Security disability lawyer so as to determine whether one’s condition might meet what is called an unsuccessful work attempt (which rules will be the subject of a subsequent article given the complex nature of these rules).

It is likewise important to keep in mind that SSA is not simply looking to see whether one’s earnings have reached SGA levels such that they are deemed capable of undertaking SGA level work, but is also looking to see whether one remains “capable” of undertaking such employment.  Thus, even if one is earning for example $800.00 per month, SSA may look at these earnings as evidence of one’s “capability” of  undertaking substantial gainful activity.   In other words, they may find that the claimant could undertake additional hours for additional pay either at the same type of employment or at an occupation potentially more suitable to their medical conditions.  A lack of income, by itself, does not serve as evidence of disability for the SSA, nor does it necessarily prove that a claimant is unable to do SGA. The SSA will look at a person’s actual income, their claimed disability, and their potential ability to work in determining whether they remain capable of SGA.

Types of Income

The SGA analysis, which is undertaken for both the SSI and SSDI programs, only looks at earned income: that is to say, income obtained through employment. A person who is able to work gainfully is generally considered ineligible for both programs (SSI and SSDI). Sources of income other than earned income are usually not considered in determining whether one remains capable of undertaking SGA level work.  The SSI program, however, as it is a welfare program, has a separate non-medical requirement that must be met given it remains a needs based program that must take into account all sources of income available to a claimant in addition to assets. It places income in four categories:  earned, unearned, in-kind, and deemed.

Earned Income:  Includes wages, self-employment income after deduction of taxes, royalties derived from the publication of creative works, and other forms of income resulting from employment or other work.  They will take into account household earned income, and thus if a spouse’s income causes the household to rise above the established Federal poverty guidelines, one will not be deemed entitled to a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit.

Unearned Income:  Includes spousal maintenance payments, child support payments, Social Security benefits, state disability benefits, unemployment benefits, interest and other investment income, pension income, and cash gifts.

In-Kind Income:  Goods and services received for free or below market value, such as shelter, food, and clothing.

Deemed Income:  A portion of the income of individuals with whom the claimant resides, such as a spouse or parents, who are presumed to assist the claimant with expenses.

Exclusions from Income Calculations

Some types of income are not considered by the SSA when determining a claimant’s eligibility for SSI, including loans that must be repaid, income tax refunds, food stamps, irregular income in small amounts, and grants or scholarships for education.

Returning to Work Without Losing SSDI Benefits

If the SSA determines that work performed after the approval of SSDI benefits meets the criteria of SGA, it may reduce or terminate the person’s benefit payments. This can sometimes result in liability to SSA for overpayments, since a reduction in benefits might not result in an immediate reduction of the amount actually disbursed.

An SSDI beneficiary who wants to return to the workforce, but who is concerned about their ability to do so and does not want to risk losing their benefits, may take advantage of the “trial work period” (TWP). Under TWP rules, the SSA will not find that a person’s disability has ended until they have made sufficient earnings to trigger a TWP month in at least least nine months over the course of a rolling 60-month period. The nine months do not need to be consecutive. Thus, it remains imperative to report to SSA all changes in income whether it be for purposes of one’s SSI (as SSI benefits are based on need) or SSDI benefit (as SSA will need to consider whether a TWP has been used up).

The SSA considers a beneficiary to have begun a TWP if their monthly earned income exceeds a certain amount, which is $780 in 2015. Therefore, if a person earns $780 or more in September 2015, the SSA will consider them no longer disabled if they have a monthly income exceeding the TWP threshold in any eight months in the next 60 months, or through August 2020.

To learn more about filing an SSDI claim, contact the Law Offices of Russell J. Goldsmith today at 1-800-773-8622 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Common Reasons for Denial of SSDI Benefits in Massachusetts and Nationwide, Social Security Disability Lawyer Blog, August 24, 2015

The Differences between SSI and SSDI in New Hampshire and Nationwide, Social Security Disability Lawyer Blog, August 16, 2015

How to Apply for SSDI Benefits in Maine and Beyond, Social Security Disability Lawyer Blog, July 1, 2015

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