It Happened to Me: a True Story of SSDI and Reporting Earnings - image of a pink background, a man with dark skin is holding a purple telephone and he has an expression of alarm on his face. his shirt is bright yellow

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This is about John’s experience with SSDI, from becoming disabled, applying for and receiving SSDI to going back to work and not reporting income with SSDI.

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I’ll start with some transparency: my experience with Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has been both great and terrible.

Obviously, It’s helped me stay afloat financially since I sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2002 and was no longer able to work as an actor. Unlike most people, I had little difficulty applying for SSDI: An administrator at the hospital I was in was someone my family and I knew, so she helped streamline the process with the Social Security Administration (SSA). I was already receiving SSDI benefits by the time I came home from the hospital.

Once home, I began receiving services from a local agency that provided in-home support services, part of which was helping me navigate all the administrative tasks–filing paperwork, making phone calls, etc.–that were necessary to continue receiving SSDI benefits.

Once I had stopped receiving services from the agency, though, I was on my own. And unfortunately, I hadn’t learned much at all about what I needed to do–which led to a few mistakes in the coming years, some of which (literally) cost me.

Over time, I did learn the basics of how to stay on SSDI, and how my monthly benefits would change as time went by. The first thing I remember finding out about was the annual Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA), which is a small increase in the amount of benefits, for the purpose of keeping apace with inflation. The COLA increase has never been more than one to two percent, so it hasn’t made a huge difference–but still, every little bit helps!

Within a year or two, I was able to start a new career, this time as a writer. I didn’t earn much money from it at first, but eventually I was hired as a reporter for the local newspaper. I started as a freelancer, but after a year or so I joined the staff. The position was only part-time, and I didn’t make a ton of money–but combined with my monthly SSDI benefits, I was able to live fairly comfortably.

Income Limits for SSDI and Reporting Income with SSDI

I made a big mistake while I had that job, though. I didn’t know this at the time, but anyone receiving SSDI is required to report any and all income to the SSA. For the eighteen months I had worked until then, I’d made over the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) limit. The SGA is a monthly figure determined by the SSA that puts a cap on earnings for anyone receiving SSDI; in 2020 the monthly earnings limit is $1,260. I’d also made the mistake of not reporting my income at all.

A few months after I’d left that job, I got a letter from the SSA saying my monthly benefits would stop due to an overpayment. For the entire time I’d worked on the staff of the newspaper, I’d earned over the SGA limit, so the letter informed me that instead of receiving benefits, I’d have to repay my benefits from that period. In a panic, I called the SSA’s 800 number and said I was no longer working. Luckily the SSA agreed to allow my benefits to continue, and I set up an installment plan of $100 per month, which would be deducted from the monthly payment I received.

Several years after that, I’d moved to Los Angeles and was getting steady work as a freelancer–now making sure to report all my income, of course! I got engaged to be married, and the question came up: Would my spouse’s income count as earnings toward my SGA limit? I called the SSA again and was relieved to find out that no, my wife’s earnings wouldn’t affect my benefits. In most cases, SSDI benefits are disbursed based on an individual’s own work record. (There are some exceptions, which you can read about here.)

And most recently, I completed an in-depth review of my earnings, which covered the past four years. The SSA has periodically asked me to account for my earnings as part of its Continuing Eligibility rules. The process is similar to an income tax audit: SSDI recipients who work are required to present numerous items of documentation, including IRS tax returns and personal bank statements, among other things. The reviews happen on a case-by-case basis, and can occur in various time intervals–anywhere from every six months to every seven years. I’ve personally done four reviews in the eighteen years I’ve been receiving benefits.

On a personal level, receiving SSDI benefits has been both a blessing and a curse.

The most frustrating thing is that I’m limited in the amount of income I can earn–and if I go over that limit, I risk losing some or all of my benefits, which means I have even less money. If I were to get a job that pays a good, reliable salary, it wouldn’t be an issue, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened.

So in the meantime, I work hard. I earn below the SGA limit, so I still receive my monthly benefits payment. And I’ve learned to be responsible, in several ways–the most important of which is being honest with the SSA about my income!

As long as I keep doing that, I’ll be able to live a decent life.

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One Comment

  1. As a person with a TBI, myself, I’d really like to read how Mr.Turner emerged from his disability, at least partly, to change careers and work again. I’m only 15 months post injury and still in the application process.

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