What is Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) for Social Security Benefits?

One of the most common questions that one will have before applying for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits is, “can I still work?”. The answer is not a simple yes or no and requires a nuanced understanding of the definition of disability. Some will be able to do more work and retain their disability benefits while others will perform less work and not be eligible to apply. If you or a loved one are considering applying for SSDI, it’s vital that you understand the requirements so you don’t lose your benefits as quickly as you got them. 

Let’s take a look at how substantial gainful activity plays a role in SSDI benefits. 

What is substantial gainful activity (SGA)?

Substantial gainful activity, or SGA, is how the Social Security Administration defines work. When determining the amount of work you can do before you apply or, if qualified, while receiving benefits, they use SGA as a benchmark to determine if you are working too much or just enough.

How is SGA Calculated?

This is usually determined by an amount of gross income (before tax) earned per month. For non-blind individuals, the maximum amount you can earn per month is $1,260 in 2020 and $2,110 for blind individuals. Each year the amount you can earn changes in line with the national average wage index. If you earn more than this, you are generally not eligible for benefits. If you are already receiving benefits, this will trigger a trial work period which will be discussed further later. 

Substantial Gainful Activity Exceptions

Because SGA is tied to your working income, there are some sources of income that the SSA does not count, including interest, investments, and gifts. They will also not include activities of daily living, chores, therapies, school or social activities as an attempt to work. Keep in mind that though these are not considered SGA, they may still be included in your application as proof you may not be unable to work. 

SGA and applying for benefits

In order to receive benefits, you cannot earn more than the base amount of SGA. Generally, if the SSA sees that you are already earning that much, they will not accept your disability application. You have to reduce your income below the SGA limit or stop working in order to be eligible to apply for disability. 

While applying for SSDI, you may be able to prove your eligibility through an unsuccessful work attempt. An unsuccessful work attempt means that you worked six months or less and had to reduce or stop working due to your disability. It may also include work that required accommodations like frequent breaks or special equipment. If this was the case, this will not count toward your SGA amount. This allows some leeway for those whose disability is worsening and restricting the type of work they do. 

SGA while receiving benefits

Once you are receiving benefits, the rule remains that you cannot earn more than the SGA limit. If you do, this initiates a trial work period. The trial work period exists so that you can attempt to return to work without immediately losing your SSDI benefits. If you work more than 9 months (not necessarily consecutively) within a 60 month period, you will lose your benefits. 

If you participate in volunteer work, this may be included as SGA if it fits under these categories: 

  • Your wages would be above SGA amount if paid 
  • You spend a significant amount of time doing it 
  • The business is owned by a family member 
  • There are physical or mental requirements to the volunteering that a disabled person could not do 

For those that own their own business, there are three metrics that are kept in mind to determine SGA. First, the work performed must be similar to the work of a person without a disability. Second, the person’s business must provide significant services and receive substantial income. Last, the work must be worth the SGA amount in terms to its value to the business. If these criteria are met, a self-employed person is no longer eligible for SSDI benefits. 


Do you need the assistance of a social security disability attorney while applying for benefits? At Reynolds and Gold, we’re here to make applying for disability as easy of a process as possible.

Contact us today. The first conference with our Social Security Disability attorneys is free and of no risk to you.

An older, differently abled woman is being supported by a volunteer.An older man filing his taxes.