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What is "substantial gainful activity"?

When a person is considering filing for Social Security Disability benefits, that person should understand the definition of what the Social Security Administration calls "substantial gainful activity," (SGA). This will play a large factor in determining whether an individual meets disability program requirements.

Substantial gainful activity is a monthly amount that a person may earn and still be considered medically disabled. The amount differs for individuals who are considered legally blind versus non-blind. It also increases each year based on cost of living and the national average wage index. For 2019, a non-blind individual may earn $1,220 per month and a blind person may earn $2,040 per month while still being eligible for Social Security Disability program benefits.

For example, consider a person who, after years of medical issues and failed treatments, realizes that she is no longer able to work a 40 hour, eight-hour per-day work week. Therefore, that person decides to file for Social Security Disability benefits. If an initial request is denied, that person may decide to obtain representation and appeal that initial decision. That could include a hearing date to present the case before an administrative law judge. When an applicant attends that hearing, one of the first things a judge will take a look at are earnings for the 15 years prior to the alleged disability onset date, as well as the time period from the date of filing to present day. This is for two reasons. One, any SGA performed in the past 15 years will need to be considered to determine if the applicant could return to that past work with the current medical condition. Two, if the applicant has been working during the waiting period and has earned more than the monthly SGA amounts allowed, that applicant may have become ineligible for benefits.

Social Security Disability is a program with strict requirements. Many claimants are surprised to learn that there are factors in addition to medical need that will be assessed. Oftentimes, when attempting to self-represent in a disability hearing, claimants quickly learn there are issues they are not prepared to address, nor do they fully understand. Getting the right legal information could make or break a disability decision.

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