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Trial Work Period: Definitions and Tips

June 3, 2021

If you've sustained an injury or have a disability that prevents you from working, you may qualify for social security disability insurance, or SSDI. If you later feel that you can return to work, you may do so with a trial work period, which allows you to continue receiving SSDI payments while working. To understand how the trial work period functions, it's important to know what it and its related terms.

In this article, we explain the concepts of the trial work period, trial work level, extended period of eligibility and expedited reinstatement, and we provide tips on how to understand SSDI and the trial work period.

Related: When and How To Tell Your Employer About a Disability

What is the trial work period?

The trial work period is an incentive provided by the U.S. Social Security Administration for recipients of SSDI, a program that supports individuals who can't work because of an injury or disability. The trial period refers to a period of at least nine months during a 60-month span in which an SSDI recipient can attempt to reenter the workforce while continuing to receive SSDI payments. The 60-month span is a rolling term, meaning that it begins with the first month of the trial period.

As of 2021, earning at least $940 per month triggers the trial work period. Any month with earnings below that amount doesn't count toward the trial period. During the period, your work can exceed the amount considered substantial gainful activity, or SGA, which refers to the amount of work that an uninjured or non-disabled person can perform. The U.S. Social Security Administration determines SGA by earnings. As of 2021, SGA for people who are visually impaired is $2,910 per month. For others, it's $1,310 per month. Other conditions of the trial work period include the following:

  • During the trial work period, you must report your work activity to the U.S. Social Security Administration and continue to meet its qualifications for disability.
  • Months of the trial work period can be nonconsecutive.
  • For work performed in previous years, different earnings standards apply. For example, in 2020, the minimum amount to trigger a trial work period was $910, while the SGA amount was $2,110 and $1,260 for visually impaired and non–visually impaired individuals, respectively.

Related: 7 Steps for Returning to Work After Being on Disability

What is the trial work level?

Trial work level refers to how much you earn in a month before deducting taxes. This determines whether a month qualifies as part of your trial work period. As stated above, you must earn at least $940 in a month to trigger a trial work period, and trial period months can be nonconsecutive. Thus, if you earned $1,000 in January, $800 in February and $930 in March, you've only accrued one month in your trial work period.

If you're self-employed, besides a $940 minimum monthly income, the number of hours you work can also determine whether you've exceeded your trial work level. The monthly limit for self-employed SSDI recipients is 80 hours. Therefore, if you earn less than $940 but work at least 80 hours, that month counts toward your trial work period. The same would be the case if you earned more than $940 and worked less than 80 hours.

What is the extended period of eligibility?

The extended period of eligibility is the 36-month period following the ninth month of your trial work period during which you may continue to receive SSDI payments depending on certain qualifications. During the extended period of eligibility, you are eligible for an SSDI check if you earn less than the SGA amount. The U.S. Social Security Administration determines this eligibility on a rolling monthly basis, allowing you to receive SSDI checks for months in which you earn at or less than the SGA amount.

There is an exception to the SGA condition called the grace period. The grace period begins in the first month in which your income exceeds the SGA amount. You remain eligible for an SSDI payment that month as well as for each of the two months that follow. Afterward, you'll cease to receive payments for months that you exceed the SGA amount. If your income subsequently falls below the SGA amount during your extended period of eligibility, you can report the decreased income and continue to receive SSDI benefits.

Related: SGA: What It Means (With Examples)

What is expedited reinstatement?

Expedited reinstatement allows you to reinstate your SSDI payments after cessation without reapplying for benefits. Normally, following the extended period of eligibility, the first instance of earnings above the SGA amount ends your payments permanently. However, you're eligible for expedited reinstatement if your income drops below that amount within five years of your benefits ending. This can be especially helpful for those whose disability or impairment worsens after their return to work.

Expedited reinstatement requires the submission of an application. You then receive SSDI payments for six months while Social Security reviews your application. At the end of six months, the agency decides either to accept or deny your application. In the latter event, you aren't obligated to pay back any SSDI benefits you received during the review period.

Tips for understanding SSDI and the trial work period

There are many terms, concepts and components to understand when it comes to SSDI, the trial work period and related ideas. Here are some tips to help you better understand the elements and processes involved in these programs:

Consult your employer's HR department

If you're unsure of where to start, you can begin by speaking with your employer's HR department. HR representatives can provide you with information and literature and direct you to useful resources that can help you navigate SSDI applications and other processes. They can also point to relevant areas in your employment documents or benefits package that may answer your questions.

Related: Learn About Being a Benefits Coordinator

Speak with a benefits counselor

Free benefits counseling provided by the U.S. Social Security Administration is available to all SSDI recipients. A benefits counselor aims to break down the elements of your case and provide guidance based on your specific circumstances. They can, for example, help you understand how much of your income counts toward SGA and whether you remain eligible to receive SSDI payments.

Consult the Ticket To Work website

The U.S. Social Security Administration's Ticket To Work Program is a free program that provides information and support for SSDI recipients who wish to return to work. The program's website is a valuable knowledge base with searchable articles that can answer your questions. You can also use the site to find contact information to speak with a representative to get you started on program services, such as career counseling, job placement and job training.

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