Social Security disability work incentives

Q: I receive Social Security disability and want to return to work. What will this do to my benefits?

A: For specific information about your own benefits, contact Social Security and speak with a representative.

In general, special rules called work incentives make it possible for people with disabilities receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to work and still receive monthly payments and Medicare or Medicaid.

Remember that Social Security, including disability (SSDI), and SSI are different programs, with different work incentives for returning to work.

Always report a return to work. This is very important. Also report related changes including stopping the work.

For Social Security disability, a main work incentive is the trial work period (TWP).

The trial work period allows you to test your ability to work for at least 9 months. During a trial work period, you receive full disability benefit regardless of how much you earn as long as your work activity has been reported and you continue to have a disabling impairment. The 9 months does not need to be consecutive and your trial work period will last until you accumulate 9 months within a rolling 60-month period. Certain other rules apply. In 2015, gross monthly earnings of $780 or more will usually count as a month toward the TWP.

After a trail work period is completed, your work activity will be reviewed to see if you earnings are considered substantial gainful activity (SGA) . Exceptions apply but, in general, in 2015 monthly gross earnings of at least $1,090 are considered SGA for a person who is not blind and $1,820 for a person who is blind. Ongoing ability to work at a substantial gainful activity level can result in benefits being stopped.

If this occurs, you have an extended period of disability (EPE).

This means that if your disability benefits stop after successfully completing the trial work period and ongoing work at the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level, your Social Security disability benefits can be automatically reinstated without a new application for any months in which your earnings drop below the SGA level.

This reinstatement period lasts for 36 consecutive months following the end of the trial work period. You must continue to have a disabling medical impairment in addition to having earnings below the SGA level for that month.

Continuation of Medicare.

Of major importance, even if cash benefits end, for most beneficiaries existing Medicare coverage continues through the EPE and beyond.

Most persons with disabilities who work will continue to receive at least 93 consecutive months of Hospital Insurance (Part A); Supplemental Medical Insurance (Part B), if enrolled; and Prescription Drug coverage (Part D), if enrolled, after the 9-month Trial Work Period (TWP).

You do not pay a premium for Part A. Although cash benefits may cease due to work, you have the assurance of continued health insurance. (93 months is 7 years and 9 months.)

This is not a complete list of work incentives for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI). There are different work incentives for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). More general information is here.

Again, for details about your own benefits, speak to a Social Security representative.

Work_Incentive

Disability is Social Security

I participate in a listener call-in radio show and a recent caller asked about Social Security disability. At age 53, he was found eligible for Social Security disability benefits and wanted to know what effect this would have on his future “real” Social Security, meaning retirement. His question provides today’s topic.

First, Social Security disability benefits are real Social Security, just another part of the program. The three parts of Social Security are retirement, survivors and disability.

Full retirement age (FRA) is a frequent topic when discussing Social Security retirement. Based on year of birth, it is the specific age that a person becomes eligible for a retirement amount that is neither reduced nor increased from the full retirement age amount. Benefits started prior to FRA are reduced by the number of months involved while benefits started afterward are increased in a similar way.

When determined eligible for Social Security disability, a person is essentially said to have reached full retirement age and their benefit amount is not reduced for age, even if they are actually much younger than their retirement FRA. Benefit amounts for disability are based on your career earnings, much as they are for retirement or survivors benefits.

Assuming a person remains eligible for Social Security disability, there is no change in benefits received once they actually reach their retirement FRA. All that would take place is an internal SSA change moving them from disability to retirement, without any visible change to the person’s benefits.

If a person went off disability and later became eligible for retirement, the years of none or low earnings while on disability would not be used to compute the retirement amount.

Medicare coverage begins after a person receives disability benefits for two years. Whether based on disability or retirement, the Medicare coverage is the same.

To estimate your own Social Security disability amount, create a my Social Security account and view your personal Statement. It contains an estimated amount that assumes you become disabled this year.

Learn more about Social Security disability here.

Voluntary tax withholding from Social Security benefits

People filing application to start Social Security benefits often ask if taxes are withheld from their monthly payments. They are not. Taxes are not routinely withheld from Social Security benefits.

Especially during this time of year as people pay their Federal income tax, another popular question is whether taxes can voluntarily be withheld from Social Security payments. Yes, you can arrange this.

If desired, you can request voluntary Federal tax withholding from your monthly Social Security benefits. You may find doing this easier than paying quarterly estimated tax payments. See http://www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/taxwithold.htm.

To start voluntary Federal tax withholding you need to complete Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form W-4V, Voluntary Withholding Request, and return it to your local Social Security office. To change or end an ongoing voluntary withholding, complete another form W-4V.

Withholding is by your selected percentage of monthly benefits, not a flat dollar amount. When completing the W-4V you select the percentage of benefits for tax withholding. Available options are to have 7 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent or 25 percent of your monthly benefit withheld.

The Social Security Administration has no authority to withhold state or local taxes from your benefit. Voluntary withholding is only for Federal taxes.

Social Security employees cannot provide tax advice. If voluntary withholding interests you, discuss it with your tax preparer or call IRS at 1-800-829-3676 (TTY 1-800-829-4059). To start voluntary tax withholding, complete and provide IRS Form W-4V to your local Social Security office.

Average Social Security and SSI amounts in February 2015

For February 2015, following are three easily understood tables providing Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) information. These tables are online here.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a separate, low-income program for the aged over 65, disabled or blind children, and disabled or blind adults that is administered by the Social Security Administration. Since SSI is completely different from Social Security, a person meeting the individual rules for each could become eligible for both programs. Income from Social Security reduces SSI amounts.

Learn more about Social Security and SSI at www.socialsecurity.gov.

Table 1 shows the number of people, in thousands, receiving Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) divided by Social Security only, SSI only, and people receiving both.

The “notes” in table 1 explain the difference in total Social Security beneficiaries shown between table 1 and table 2.

2015-02 table 1

Table 2 shows Social Security benefit information for February 2015, separated by number of beneficiaries receiving specific types of benefits and the average dollar amount of those benefits. The number of beneficiaries is again shown in the thousands, with total benefits shown in the millions and average amounts in dollars.

Social Security was never intended to provide full retirement income and this table emphasizes that fact. In February 2015, the average SSA retirement benefit, for the retiree only and excluding any family benefits, was $1,331.44.

2015-02 table 2

Table 3 shows Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit information for February 2015, separated by number of recipients receiving specific types of benefits and the average dollar amount of those benefits.  As above, the number of recipients are shown in the thousands, total benefits shown in the millions and average amounts in dollars.

In February 2015, the average SSI amount was $539.61. The 2015 maximum payable to an eligible individual is $733 per month. This maximum is reduced by other income, including Social Security benefits.

2015-02 table 3

These tables are online here.

Changing a child’s representative payee

Q: My ex-wife receives Social Security disability benefits for herself plus benefits for our daughter, for whom she has custody. Within the next few months, I will have custody and our daughter will live with me full-time.

Will Social Security start sending benefits for her to me or will they continue going to my ex-wife? Will the amount change when she is living with me?

A: A person receiving benefits on behalf of someone else is their representative payee. As a general guideline, the parent with legal custody is the preferred payee compared to a parent without custody but exceptions exist based on individual situations.

Changing the representative payee for your daughter, or anyone, is not automatic. You will need to request a change by completing an application to be the new payee for your daughter. This is not an online application so contact your Social Security office to do this. Expect to prove that you have custody and that your daughter is living with you.

A worker’s, in this case your ex-wife, own Social Security amount is based on his or her earnings history over many years. Benefits to a child or other family member do not change how much the worker receives for himself or herself.

Assuming you become your daughter’s representative payee, with her benefits sent in your care, the individual Social Security benefit of your ex-wife will not change although she would no longer receive the amount for your daughter.

The Social Security benefit amount for a child is based on the earnings record of the worker and will be the same wherever the child is living.

Representative payees are responsible for using Social Security benefits on behalf of the eligible person. As representative payee, you will have to report how funds for your daughter are used. Other responsibilities include reporting if your daughter is no longer living with you. Details are in the Guide for Representative Payees.

Social Security testimony before Congress

As reported in the February edition of the Social Security newsletter, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin testified twice before Congress during February.

On February 11, she testified about the financial status of the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund before the Senate Budget Committee.

Ms. Colvin asked for the Senate’s support for the President’s Budget request, which will reallocate .9 percent of payroll tax revenue from the Old-Age and Survivors trust fund to the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund for 5 years. This action will keep the DI trust fund adequately financed and able to pay full benefits until 2033.

On February 26, she testified before the U.S. House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Sub-Committee.

The topic of the hearing was “The Vital Responsibility of Serving the Nation’s Aging and Disabled Communities.” Ms. Colvin stressed that SSA continues to meet the many challenges facing the agency, such as our hearings backlog and hiring administrative law judges. We also continue to strengthen our disability program through activities such as our continuing disability reviews and Supplemental Security Income redeterminations. These activities save billions of program dollars and protect the integrity of our programs.

Direct links to her testimony are here, within the Social Security Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs website section. In addition to links to testimony by Social Security officials, the section has more about legislation of the 114th Congress with provisions affecting Social Security.

Earnings test not just for retirement benefits

Q: Do the Social Security earnings limits apply just to retirement? Do they apply if receiving widow’s benefits?

A: Yes, earnings limits apply for survivor benefits. The annual earnings test applies individually to everyone younger than their full retirement age (FRA) unless that person receives benefits due to their own disability. People of all ages receive Social Security and the earnings test applies to many of them.

For examples, if both members of a couple receive Social Security retirement, the earnings test applies separately to each until full retirement age. The earnings test also applies to a child, not disabled, receiving benefits through a parents record whether the parent is retired, disabled or deceased.

The earnings test does not apply to people receiving benefits because of their own disability but it does apply to non-disabled family members, including spouse and children, receiving benefits through the disabled person’s record.

Many young people receive Social Security benefits. Earnings test amounts are the same whether SSA retirement, survivors or disability is involved. Different amounts can be earned during the calendar year before benefits are reduced based on if the person is under full retirement age (FRA) the entire year, reaches FRA during the year, or is already FRA. The earnings test ends when you reach FRA.

Based on year of birth, full retirement age ranges from 65 to 67. Retirement FRA is 66 for people born in 1943 – 1954. Note that FRA’s for survivors benefits are different from retirement FRA’s.

Earnings test details are here.

Separate earning rules and work incentives apply if you receive Social Security due to your own disability. Contact Social Security before returning to work. General information is here.

America Saves Week 2015

America Saves Week, February 23 – 28, 2015, reminds us all to focus on the importance of saving and investing for the future. The Social Security Administration is one of many public and private organizations participating in America Saves Week.

Steps toward achieving financial goals include saving, investing and planning throughout an entire career.

What is the status of your savings? According to the America Saves Week website, www.americasavesweek.org/, you should assess your savings annually to make sure you are saving for all the right things and it provides several questions to help you do this.

Someday you will want to retire. Prepare for it. Now is the perfect time to examine your saving habits. Are you on track for a comfortable retirement?

Estimate your future SSA retirement amount with the Social Security online Retirement Estimator, one part of the SSA Retirement Planner. The Estimator connects to your actual work record to provide a personal estimate. You can change the default estimates for those more in tune with your actual plans.

Create a my Social Security account and view your Social Security Statement. Along with your Social Security earnings record, the Statement provides estimated retirement amounts plus family benefits should you become disabled or die. This information helps you arrange other parts of your financial planning.

Social Security personnel cannot assist with financial planning. Select your own helpers for this. Two websites to help you get started are www.mymoney.gov, the official U.S. government website dedicated to teaching Americans the basics of finances, and the Ballpark Estimator at www.choosetosave.org/ballpark, part of the American Savings Education Council program, which includes the Social Security Administration.

These sites, and others like them, are not just about savings for retirement. There are reasons to save for every stage of life.

To help your planning, here is a Test Your Savings Knowledge question from the American Saves Week website:

Q: About how much more do families with a savings plan save than those without such a plan?

A: According to one study, if family incomes are the same, those families with a plan save about twice as much as those who do not have one.

Why is school information asked on a disability application?

Q: The online Social Security disability asked for my school background. Why does this matter if my doctor says I am disabled? 

A: There are two basic areas considered when someone applies for Social Security disability. First, they must have worked long enough and recently enough to be insured. Second, they must meet the Social Security definition of disability. Asking about school and work experience helps determine if a person meets the disability definition. 

The definition of disability for Social Security is different than other programs. No benefits are payable for partial or short-term disability. 

The disability definition emphasizes ability to work. In addition to the work requirement, to be found disabled under Social Security rules you cannot do the work that you did before, you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical conditions, and your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or expected to result in death. Age, work experience and education are considered in the decision.  

You are asked about your work experience and education to help determine your ability to work. Making this decision follows a national step-by-step process. Opinions of your doctor and other medical providers are important but generally only one part of making a decision.  

Broadly speaking, two people with the same medical condition might receive different decisions based on their age, work experience or educational backgrounds. For example, compare someone age 50 having a high school diploma and work experience involving heavy lifting to someone age 30 with a college degree and a desk job. The ability of each to do work previously done, or to adjust to new work, could be very different and result in different decisions for the same medical condition.

This is a broad example. There are injuries and illnesses that are routinely approved based on medical diagnosis alone. 

Learn more or file an application at the Disability section of the Social Security website, www.socialsecurity.gov.  From there, go to the Disability Planner section. 

In the Disability Planner, learn how you qualify for Social Security disability benefits including work requirements, disability definitions and the steps followed in making the decision.   

Completely different from Social Security retirement, survivors and disability programs, Social Security administers the need-based Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, also having disability benefits.  

Social Security launches new fraud facts webpage

The Social Security Administration has launched a new web page to highlight the agency’s many efforts in fighting fraud and protecting every worker’s investment in the Social Security program. See it at www.socialsecurity.gov/antifraudfacts. 

Visitors to this site get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the hard work done every day to fight fraud, waste, and abuse in Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs.  

The website includes information on the tools used to fight fraud, spotlights some of highly successful anti-fraud efforts, and provides materials you can use to help spread the word that Social Security has zero tolerance for fraud. 

One of several links from this new fraud facts webpage is to the Social Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) webpage. The direct OIG link is http://oig.ssa.gov/ and it can also be easily reached through the “contact us” links on the Social Security homepage, www.socialsecurity.gov. From the “contact us” page, click on “Report Fraud, Waste or Abuse.” 

The OIG website has lots of information including some situations, with examples, that may be considered as fraud, waste or abuse against the Social Security administration. You can report possible fraud situations there and read about some recent investigations.