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Return to Work: Does It Terminate My Disability Claim?

May 22nd, 2020

The process for applying for Social Security disability benefits is long and tedious.  Many individuals cannot afford to go years without income while waiting for a decision on their claim.  Many people try to return to work in an attempt to financially care for their family.  After returning to work, they assume their disability claim is dead and they either stop communicating with their attorney, stop treating or both.

Claimants should recognize that a return to work, while they have a pending disability claim, does not mean all is lost.  Social Security encourages claimants to return to work if they are able to do so and they do not automatically penalize those individuals by denying them benefits.  Claimants need to understand that before a return to work will have a negative impact on their claim, Social Security will consider 2 factors.

First, how long has the individual been working?  The magic line is 6 months.  If a person returns to work while their disability claim is pending but the work attempt lasts less than 6 months, Social Security will not consider that return to work attempt when deciding the individual’s claim. If the individual works beyond the 6 month mark then Social Security looks at the second factor, namely how much money has the individual earned on the job (i.e., substantial gainful activity or “SGA”).  A person is allowed to earn a certain amount of money each month without having it impact their disability claim.  The allowable monthly income limit changes from year to year but for 2020 it is $1,260/month.  If the individual earns less than that amount then the Social Security Administration will not use the return to work attempt to deny benefits.

If the person has returned to work for more than 6 months and has consistently earned more than the monthly SGA amount then the Social Security Administration will consider the person to have successfully returned to work.  However, even if that is the case this still does not mean your claim is dead.  If the person was out of work for at least 12 consecutive months before they returned to work they may request a closed period of disability.  In other words, the individual’s initial claim was based on a disability starting as of their alleged onset date (AOD) and lasting indefinitely into the future.

A closed period claim is based on the individual only being disabled from the AOD through the return to work date.  If approved, the individual would only get a one-time payment for the disability benefits they are entitled to during the approved closed period time frame.  If the individual successfully returns to work before having been out of work for 12 consecutive months then a closed period is no longer an option.  If you argue for a closed period, a key component is “medical improvement,” meaning the individual must be able to show that they medically improved to the point where they were able to return to work.  Without medical improvement, the Social Security Administration will assume that if the claimant was able to return to work when they did then they could have also returned to work long before that point and benefits will be denied.  The point here is that claimants need to understand that even if they have returned to work while their disability claim is pending they still have options.  Walking away from a claim after returning to work on the assumption that their work destroyed their claim is wrong and the individual may end up leaving potential disability benefits on the table.

If you have applied for disability benefits and have or are considering returning to work, it is in your best interest to contact an experienced Social Security disability attorney to discuss your options and to see how your job may or may not impact your disability claim.  The disability attorneys at Henson Fuerst can help answer any return to work questions you may have and we regularly take closed period disability claims, so please contact Henson Fuerst today at 919-781-1107.