This is a topic that is covered in our Frequently Asked Questions section, but it is something that I am asked so often that I thought I would address it in a lengthier blog post. It is also one of the more difficult questions to answer, as this is a very nuanced area of Social Security law that can vary from case to case.
The frustrating answer I must often give clients is, "it depends." I know, I know. We tend to say that a lot, but it's true -- and really the closest thing we can give to a definitive answer much of the time. This is because the potential impact on your case can depend on a number of factors, including the type of work you're doing, how much you're making, whether you're working full-time or part-time, and whether you're working in an "accommodated" position.
By definition, the maximum amount a person can earn in the year 2012 and still "technically" qualify for disability benefits is $1010 a month. This is what is called "substantial gainful activity", or SGA. Any earnings over this amount are usually considered to be too much, and in such a case, a person will often be found "not disabled" on the basis of their earnings, alone. However, to make things trickier, other factors such as monthly medication expenses and subsidies given by an employer can help a claimant who is making over the SGA amount to "rebut" the presumption that they are not disabled.
But what if you're making under SGA? Are you in the clear? Well, not necessarily. While you will not technically be considered "not disabled" on the basis of work earnings, alone, work under the SGA amount can still be considered by the Social Security Administration when assessing your case. Again, the question goes back to a lot of different factors, such as the type of work that is being performed, whether there are accommodations for your disabilities given by the employer, whether you have control over your work hours, etc. While I have had many clients who were awarded benefits while still working part-time, the above factors tend to be thoroughly considered by a judge before awarding benefits in most cases. These are questions that the claimant should therefore consider when thinking about returning to work, as well.
As one can see, there is a reason I tell people that there is not always a clear answer to whether work activity will affect their case. It may. It may not. But work activity can be a consideration of the judge, even if the work is under the SGA limit.
Finally, there is another particular instance where work that is clearly over the SGA amount will not be preclusive to an award of benefits, and that is when there is an "unsuccessful work attempt". This occurs when a person tries to return to full-time work, but has to stop or reduce their work hours to under the SGA amount due to their condition. The full-time work in this case must not last more than 6 months, and a person must have stopped working because their condition prevented them from doing so. SGA work that lasts longer than 6 months cannot be considered an unsuccessful work attempt. In these situations, the Administration can look into whether this work qualifies as an "unsuccessful work attempt" -- if it does, this work itself will not preclude an award of benefits.