Washington, DC - Ask Rusty - SSDI and the Ticket to Work Program:
Dear Rusty:I am 60 and currently getting Social Security Disability, but I would like to return to work as much as possible. I am concerned with how my earned income would affect my Social Security at age 65 (or even at age 70). I understand that Social Security has a "trial work" program that allows me to keep receiving disability for a while, to allow me to test my physical limits. I wish to make sure that my Social Security Disability does NOT automatically convert to the standard (early) benefit at age 62 (Ouch!). I read something about a 96 month period that is crucial. So many factors involved, so I wish to make the right decision. ~ Wanting to Work While Disabled.
Dear Wanting: Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, provides eligible disabled workers with a financial lifeline in return for the insurance premiums they've paid into the program during their working years. Although the criteria are stringent, once awarded the benefit provides income to partially replace earnings that are lost due to a long term disability. Social Security encourages those receiving SSDI benefits to eventually return to the workforce and offers a "Ticket to Work" program to help achieve that goal. This program gives you the chance to test your ability to work for at least nine "trial work months" during a 60 month period, and during this trial work period you'll receive your full SSDI benefit regardless of how much you earn. Briefly, any month you earn more than $840 (for 2017) counts as a trial work month. After you have reached nine trial work months, you can still receive your SSDI benefits for another 36 months, except that you won't receive benefits for any month that your earnings exceed what Social Security considers "substantial", which for 2017 is $1,170 (note that these dollar amounts can change annually). If your benefits stop because your earnings regularly exceed "substantial", and within 5 years you are again unable to work due to your disability, your disability benefits can be restarted (without having to re-apply). You can get full details about the Ticket to Work program by going to https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10095.pdf , but this program should allow you to work and test your physical limits without a negative impact to your Social Security benefits.
To address a few of your other concerns: Your earnings from attempting to return to work while disabled shouldn't negatively affect your future Social Security retirement benefit at your full retirement age. Your disability benefits will not automatically convert to early retirement benefits at age 62, but they will automatically convert to retirement benefits when you reach your full retirement age (which is 66 years plus 6 months if you were born in 1957). However when they convert, your benefit amount will remain the same as you were receiving in disability benefits. If you are on Medicare and your benefits stop as a result of exceeding the substantial earnings limit, as long as you are still disabled your free Medicare Part A coverage will continue for at least 93 months after the 9 month trial work period. However, you will still have to pay a Medicare Part B premium in order to receive Part B coverage.