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Jan '15

Possibility of Working in Self-Employment

Ben Spec in Ribeira Grande, Sao Miguel Island, Azores

I don’t know about you, but I had to escape the Wisconsin winter and the minus degree wind chills. Being an adventurous guy, I found myself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, among the nine breathtaking islands of the Azores. If you like waterfalls and swimming with dolphins, this is the place to be!

Checking my emails, I see I have an interesting question from Roy.

Dear Ben,
I receive SSDI and have for several years, since I became disabled and couldn’t work my regular job in construction. I have been making fishing lures and rods as a hobby since I was a kid; I give them to friends and family members as gifts. I now want to try selling them for profit and have already talked to an employment counselor about the business side, and it looks doable. However, I’m not sure about trying it mainly because I’m afraid that Social Security will lower and even stop my benefits (and my Medicare) if I work. If the business doesn’t work out for me, I’ll no longer have any income. What will happen to my benefits if I try this?

Dale, WI

Dear Roy,
I understand you are hesitant about beginning your enterprise due to the fear of losing your benefits. Over the years, I have worked with disability beneficiaries who had similar fears yet were able to successfully achieve their work goals (including self employment).

An important factor in their success was Social Security’s disability benefit programs that have work incentives or supports that allow a beneficiary like you to try working without having your benefits or Medicare coverage end.

For example, you have a nine month trial work period to try working, earn any amount, and still receive full benefits for at least a year after starting work. If your net earnings from self employment (NESE) never become substantial, your benefits can continue indefinitely as long as you are still disabled. If your earnings are substantial after a year, your benefits will stop. For any months that your earnings are not substantial within 36 months after the end of your Trial Work Period (TWP), you can again receive benefits. You also have five years to restart your benefits without a new application. And, your Medicare can continue all this time and possibly even longer.

Also, when Social Security looks at your net earnings to decide if they are substantial, they will deduct expenses that you have paid for certain services and items that you need to work. Similarly, Social Security may deduct the cost of contributions from others to your business effort.

You should contact a benefits specialist who can provide you with more detailed information about work incentives and returning to work. As a Social Security disability beneficiary, you can receive benefit counseling for free from a Community Work Incentive Counselor (CWIC) through the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) program. Or, you may receive assistance from a work incentive benefits counselor through organizations like your state Vocational Rehabilitation agency. Here are the phone numbers that you can call and the website you can check to find the WIPA program provider in your area: 1-866-968-7824 (voice) and 1-866-833-2967 (TTY), www.chooseworkttw.net/findhelp.

Also, remember to contact the Social Security Administration to keep them updated, both when you start working and after: 1-800-772-1213.

I’m going to do some hiking around Ribeira Grande, which is part of Sao Miguel island. Due to volcanic geology, the landscape is diverse with deep ravines, mineral hot springs, foothills and mountains, in addition to the many beaches.


Oct '14

Working and Applying for Disability Benefits

Ben Spec in Matamata, New Zealand

Good morning young Hobbits! I am at a Hobbiton where they filmed parts of the Lord of the Rings movies here in Matamata, New Zealand. Even though I still feel hungry even after my second breakfast, I’ll answer a question from Franklin.

Dear Ben,

I have a chronic condition that has gotten worse over the years. But, I have forced myself to keep working as much as I can. Because of my condition, I’ve had to cut down my work hours the last couple of years so my pay has been only a few hundred dollars a month. I’ve thought about applying for Social Security disability, but I heard that you can’t if you’re working. What can I do?

Hyde, WI


That is a common misconception. A person can apply for and possibly receive either Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability payments while still working.

To be eligible the person must:

  • have a disability and have enough work credits for SSDI, or
  • meet certain income and resource requirements for SSI.

Also, if the Social Security Administration decides that the person’s current work is substantial, the application for benefits will be denied regardless of the severity of the disability.

People are considered to have a disability for Social Security benefits if they have a mental or physical condition that prevents them from engaging in substantial work activity and the condition has lasted or is expected to last twelve months or end in death. So, if someone is doing substantial work despite having a disability, that person is not eligible for Social Security disability benefits.

The key factor in determining if a person’s work is substantial, is the extent and value of the work activity. What Social Security considers substantial work is usually reflected by the amount of a person’s work earnings.

In 2014, the amount of work earnings that Social Security considers substantial is monthly gross wages of $1,070; the amount is $1,800 for blind individuals applying for SSDI (under the SSI program, the SGA test is not applicable to those who are blind.) The SGA amount normally increases a few dollars every year. So, if a person is earning above this set amount when applying for benefits, he or she is engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) and will not be entitled to disability benefits.

Social Security does take into account certain special conditions and circumstances that a person is working under and so may not count your entire work earnings in an SGA evaluation. For example, if you are being paid a monthly wage that exceeds the SGA amount but is not actually earning the full amount (that is, the employer is paying the person more than the value of his or her services or providing special help), Social Security will disregard whatever portion of the wages that the person is not really earning in deciding if the work is SGA.

Based on what you said, you should contact Social Security about filing an application for disability benefits.

The next tour is about to start, so off I go to see some Hobbit Holes and The Green Dragon Inn! Until my next adventure…


Jul '14

Social Security Grandchild Benefits

Ben visiting the Grand Canyon

Hi everyone, I am in Arizona marveling at one of the natural wonders of the world, The Grand Canyon! The arid climate makes for a very dry visit but it’s supposed to be a cool tonight with lows in the high 40s or low 50s! In addition to the great hiking and breathtaking views, this is a great place to visit for spotting animals. Due to its size there is a vast habitat for wildlife and plants making it a valuable wildlife preserve.

Dear Ben,
A friend of mine has custody of and supports her grandson who is 9 years-old. Someone told me a child can get Social Security benefits based on a grandparent’s earnings if the child lives with the grandparent. Is that true?

Matt, Dodgeville, WI

Dear Matt,
This is a great question! Thanks for asking it. A child may receive Social Security benefits on the work record of a grandparent in certain situations.

There are more qualifications that have to be met for grandchild benefits than for regular child benefits including:

  • A child’s grandparent must be receiving Social Security Retirement Insurance Benefits (RIB), Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), or be deceased (and have earned a certain number of work credits).
  • Next, the grandchild’s natural or adoptive parents must be deceased or disabled at the point the grandparent became entitled to Social Security benefits or died.
  • The grandchild must be dependent on the grandparent, which means living with and receiving at least one-half support from the grandparent for the year before the grandparent became entitled to retirement or disability benefits or died.
  • Source: POMS GN 00306.235

In Cases of Grandparent Adoption…
A grandchild could also become entitled on a grandparent’s record if the grandparent legally adopts the grandchild. For Social Security purposes, the grandchild would be considered a child of the grandparent so that the less restrictive qualifications for regular child benefits would apply.

Child Benefits Based on Absent or Deceased Parent’s Work Record
Also, a child living in the custody of a grandparent could possibly receive regular Social Security child benefits based on an absent or deceased parent’s work record. This could happen if a parent is entitled to Social Security disability or retirement benefits on their own record, or if a parent is deceased and had earned enough work credits.

Your friend should contact the Social Security Administration and check on all these possibilities.

I’m at the south rim of the canyon and I think I see some movement and activity just below me. It looks like a flock of bighorn sheep so I’m going to check this out!


Jun '14

ADA and SSDI Benefits

Ben at Sao Paulo, Brazil

Hello again! I decided to stay in Brazil to take part of the World Cup festivities. Cheering for the host country in the World Cup is an amazing experience! Needing a few moments of quiet, I found a little street corner cafe, so I’ll sip my Brazilian coffee and check my emails.

Dear Ben,

I’m getting SSDI benefits from Social Security. Can I still file an ADA claim against an employer who let me go without providing reasonable accommodations on my job?

Sarah, Salem, WI

Hi Sarah,
I can give you general information about the relationship between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), but since this can be a complicated issue, you should consult with an ADA specialist to see how it applies in your particular case. For more information you may contact the Great Lakes ADA Center or the ADA Information Line.

When the ADA was passed in 1990, it was thought that SSDI applicants or beneficiaries could not file a lawsuit under the ADA against an employer for discrimination based on a disabling condition. The assumption was that since an application for SSDI is an assertion of being unable to do substantial work due to a disabling condition, an employer could not be held liable for withholding work from a person receiving or applying for SSDI.

However, the Supreme Court in 1999 ruled that an application for SSDI benefits does not necessarily invalidate or cancel out an ADA lawsuit. An application for (or receipt of) SSDI benefits does not automatically bar an employee with a disability from seeking redress under the ADA. Reasonable circumstances can exist in which the two are legally compatible. However, an ADA plaintiff must explain to the court any apparent contradiction when pursuing a claim under the ADA.

The Supreme Court noted that the ADA focuses on reasonable accommodations while SSDI focuses on the inability to work and is not about reasonable accommodations. The contention in an SSDI application that one is unable to work due to a disability is not the same as saying that one could not work if reasonably accommodated.

So, if you’re pursuing litigation against an employer under the ADA, you can still apply for and receive SSDI. However, you will need to explain to the presiding judge in the ADA action how you can be entitled to SSDI while at the same time be suing an employer for termination or discrimination in employment.

Coffee’s finished, so it’s time to get into the stadium and enjoy another match! Can you guess where I’m headed next? Stay tuned.


May '14

Becoming One’s Own Payee

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I’m still in Brazil. It has been an incredible week watching the soccer teams practice. But soon, I must move on to another country to explore. But first, I’ll answer this question sent to me by Tim.

Dear Ben,

My sister has been getting my monthly Social Security disability check for the last several years because she’s my rep payee. It can be inconvenient and often a problem for me to get the money I need. I’m not sure why they ever sent my checks to my sister; I know I can handle my own money alright. Is there any way I could start having my checks come directly to my bank account?

Hortonville, WI

Dear Tim,

The Social Security Administration (SSA) must have decided at some point that it was in your best interest for your sister to receive and manage your disability benefits. When a beneficiary is legally incompetent or under age 15, Social Security law and regulations require that a beneficiary have a representative payee. Also, Social Security will appoint a representative payee when a beneficiary is found to be incapable of handling his or her own payments. However, a beneficiary may become his or her own payee when circumstances change, which may be the case in your situation.

The Social Security policy is that an adult beneficiary who is legally competent is capable of managing (or directing someone else to manage) his or her benefits and so can be his or her own payee, unless there are indicators or evidence to the contrary. (POMS GN00502.001)

For you to become your own payee, you will need to make a formal request with Social Security. A Social Security representative will then talk to you and re-evaluate your situation by obtaining current evidence of your capability. Such evidence may be a signed statement from a physician (or other medical professional) or lay evidence which can include Social Security’s own observations and statements from others (such as relatives, friends, neighbors, or landlords) who are in a position to know your ability to manage or direct the management of your funds.

If you were judged to be legally incompetent, a certified copy of the court order restoring your rights is needed. After the re-evaluation, Social Security decides if you should be your own payee. If Social Security determines that you still need a rep payee, you may appeal the decision.

Keep these questions coming in, and where ever I am traveling, I’ll check in from time to time.


May '14


Ben Spec in Brazil


Hi everyone, the World Cup is around the corner so I decided to come to Rio de Janeiro to be part of the festivities and to show off some of my soccer moves. But, before I watch my favorite teams practice, I’ll take a break to answer a reader’s question.

Dear Ben,
Social Security just sent me a letter that says they overpaid me a couple hundred dollars in SSI because of some work I did. I disagree with them; I know that I didn’t earn as much as they say I did. I was wondering if there is anything I can do about it.

Meadow Valley, WI


Yes, you can appeal, which is a request that the Social Security Administration (SSA) review and change its decision. People who disagree with a decision that SSA makes about their Title II benefits (including Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI) or Title XVI payments (Supplemental Security Income or SSI) may usually make such a request. A person has the right to appeal an SSA decision that involves initial entitlement to benefits, continuous entitlement, overpayments, amount of benefits, and various other issues.

Whenever Social Security makes a decision that affects an applicant for benefits or a beneficiary, it sends a notice to the person with the decision, rationale, and information about the person’s right to appeal the decision.

Social Security has forms for requesting an appeal which must be made within 60 days of the date on their notice of decision (65 days when including mail time). The time limit for filing an appeal can be extended if the requestor shows good cause for not appealing on time. In looking at possible good cause for late filing, Social Security considers the requester’s circumstances, potential for misunderstanding, and physical, mental, educational, and linguistic limitations. Examples of possible reasons for good cause include a serious illness that prevented contact with Social Security, or a death or serious illness in the person’s immediate family.

The Social Security appeal process has four possible levels that are requested in the following order: Reconsideration, Hearing, Appeals Council Review, and Judicial Review (Federal District Court). If an appeal is turned down at one step, a person may move to the next step to appeal. Social Security sends a separate notice after the decision at each level of appeal.

A person may have an attorney or other qualified person act as his or her representative in the appeal process. To do this, the person must file a signed appointment of representation with Social Security. An appointed representative may perform multiple tasks on behalf of the claimant:

  • obtain information about the case from SSA,
  • examine any documents that the claimant would have access to,
  • appear at any interview or hearing either alone or with the person,
  • submit evidence,
  • be informed of all additional evidence needed to support the claim,
  • make statements, and
  • be notified of any decision made in the case.

At any time during the appeal process, the person can and should submit to Social Security any new material evidence that could affect Social Security’s decision.

So you should contact Social Security as soon as possible to start your appeal.

I’ll be hanging around the Rio area for another week, so check in next week to see what questions come my way. Gooaalllll!


Apr '14

Combination Impairments


Who knew that Ifaty Beach would be so sunny? I’m in Toliara, Madagascar enjoying some rays on one of the many beautiful beaches in this amazing country. But, as is customary, I’m taking a break to answer your questions.

Dear Ben,

I’ve had problems with arthritis for a few years. I’ve been taking medications that used to make working fulltime possible. Then several months ago, I had to leave my job for several reasons. The pain made it harder to do my job, and the pressure of trying to do my work started to make me tense and moody, and I just couldn’t concentrate and was confused at times. I took a lot of sick days and finally had to leave. I’m to the point where I don’t even want to go out anymore.

I’ve heard that arthritis is not enough to get Social Security disability, so I doubt I would be approved if I apply. What do you think?

Upson, WI

Dear Morgan,

Based on what you said, you should contact SSA and apply for disability benefits.

Even if you don’t qualify for disability based on your arthritis alone, SSA may still find you disabled. Often when a person has a single severe medical condition, SSA will find the person disabled based on that one impairment. But a person may also qualify for disability benefits based on a combination of disabling medical conditions. SSA considers how the combined effects of all impairments limit a person’s ability to work and if these limitations have lasted or are expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.

So when you apply, you need to provide in detail, all information about any impairment you have that limits your ability to work; this includes both physical (your arthritis) and mental problems, such as the ones that you mentioned. SSA will then consider these as indications of possible impairments that may be viewed in combination.

If there is not enough medical information about your conditions from any treating physicians and psychologists you have, SSA may ask you to have what is called a Consultative Examination. SSA will pay for the exam, which is for evaluation only and not treatment.

In closing, the beaches in Madagascar are virtually untouched by mass tourism. That gives me more freedom to discover the coral reefs and clear turquoise waters.

Stay connected to see where I’ll be traveling next, Ben

Mar '14

Taxes and Benefits

Venice of the East - image of Bangkok, Thailand at sunset overlooking a river bathed in golden light.

Hi Everyone,
I received the following question that seemed very timely to tax season as the sun sets here in Bangkok. What a beautiful sunset it is. I can see why they call this city the Venice of the East. Thanks for sending your questions my way.

Dear Ben,

I started getting SSDI benefits at the beginning of last year (2013) of around $1,200 per month and also a private pension of $600 per month. I am not married and don’t work. Someone told me that people who get social security benefits have to pay taxes on them; I thought SSA benefits weren’t taxed. Are they, and will I need to pay taxes on mine?

Ino, WI

Dear Barbara,

Title II Social Security benefits (which include SSDI) may be taxed depending on how much a beneficiary’s total income is.

The general rule is that if one-half of a single person’s Social Security benefits plus all other income is greater than $25,000 annually, some of the benefits will be subject to federal personal income tax. For a married couple filing jointly, the base amount of income is $32,000. If an individual beneficiary’s total income is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 and $44,000 for a couple), up to 50 percent of the benefits may be subject to tax. And for beneficiaries with income of more than $34,000 ($44,000 for a couple), up to 85 percent of their benefits may be considered taxable income.

Income that counts toward these base amounts other than Social Security benefits includes wages, net self-employment earnings, interest, other pension benefits, withdrawals from 401(k) and IRA accounts, and other tax-exempt interest.

It appears that your adjusted gross income plus one-half your Social Security benefits will not exceed the $25,000 threshold, so federal taxes would not be due.

Also note that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments are not subject to taxes.

IRS Publication 915 has extensive and detailed information about benefits subject to income tax and examples of how to complete the appropriate worksheets are included with the IRS forms. http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p915.pdf


Mar '14

Immediate Payments of Social Security

Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

As you know, I am always on the go, and today you will find me in Bangkok, Thailand. I’m in tourist mode discovering the floating markets. It is here where one can purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers, in addition to tasty foods made right on the wooden boats. I’m going to eat my coconut pancakes as I catch up on my blog.

Dear Ben,

I get SSI and have the payment sent directly to my bank every month. Today (the 2nd of the month) I discovered that this month’s check was not deposited; it looks like there was some kind of mix up with my account at the bank which I transferred to recently. I need the money from that check to pay my expenses and don’t have much in my account. What can I do?

Lola, Spirit, WI

Hi Lola,

You should contact your local Social Security Administration (SSA) field office for them to check the status of your payment. In critical situations when an SSI recipient’s payment is delayed, interrupted, or not received, a local SSA office may be able to make a special direct payment to the recipient.

SSA can make what is called an Immediate Payment (IP) when a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient has a financial emergency and does not receive a payment that is due. An emergency exists when a person needs money right away because of a threat to health or safety, such as not enough money for food, clothing, shelter or medical care. The local SSA office writes out a paper check to be cashed.

An IP is not additional money but rather an advance against future SSI payments. Once a recipient’s regular payment is received, SSA will recover the IP amount from the recipient’s next SSI payment. The maximum amount payable is the total amount of payment(s) due or $999, whichever is less. SSA has limits on the number of IP payments a recipient can receive: just one may be made every 30 days regardless of the amount paid. (POMS SI 02004)

Similar to an IP is an SSI Emergency Advance Payment (EAP) which is used only in initial claim situations and has similar requirements as the IP. A person must be eligible for SSI, have a financial emergency, and have received no SSI payment yet. Normally the maximum amount is the Federal Benefit Rate (FBR) which is $721 in 2014.

SSA also has Immediate Payments under the Title II program (which includes SSDI). A beneficiary must be entitled to a benefit, not have received a regular due payment and have an immediate financial need for payment (i.e., for food, shelter, medical treatment, etc.) that cannot reasonably be met through other resources available in the community. (POMS RS 02801.010)

I’ll wrap up this blog, as the smell of fresh cooked seafood is calling me. I hear the mackerel fried rice is a local favorite.


Feb '14

Technology Expenses and Income Related Work Expenses (IRWEs)

Photo of Ben in front of Lapu Lapu

Heading North on my travels, I decided to stop on Mactan Island in the Philippines to admire the statue of Lapu Lapu. Fortunately, I found an internet cafe nearby to check for questions.

Dear Ben,

I’ve been getting SSDI for over four years now and my benefit is about $1,100. Last year I started working at a job from home. I started out earning around $500 gross a month and went up to $800 after a few months. I let SSA (Social Security Administration) know about my work and how much I earn, and I have been keeping track of my earnings. I have used all nine of my trial work period months, but have not reached the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level of earnings yet ($1,070 this year, 2014).

I will soon have the opportunity to increase my earnings to around $1,200 or more a month. Given my disability and the kind and amount of work that the company requires to earn that higher amount, I’ll need to buy some special software, a couple pieces of hardware, and a better and more expensive data connection for my computer. I’m willing to do this even though it’ll be costly and I’ll have to pay for all of it myself over time. But, I’m hesitant about going ahead since it means my benefits would stop a couple of months after I earn that much. Any ideas about what I can do?

Jill, Browntown, WI

Hi Jill,

The costs you have for the special computer equipment that you need may possibly qualify as Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE). This means that SSA would subtract the costs from your gross earnings when you reach the SGA level. For example, if in any month you pay $150 for those items and services and your gross wages are $1,200, SSA will subtract $150 from $1,200 and count just $1,050 as your earned income, which is below the current SGA level of $1,070. Since you have not earned SGA yet, your benefits will not be ceased as long as your countable earnings stay below SGA. For a beneficiary whose benefits have already ceased due to SGA and who is in the 36 month Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), a benefit would be payable in any month with countable earnings below SGA.

To qualify as an IRWE the cost of an item or a service must be needed to enable a beneficiary to work, must be directly related to the beneficiary’s impairment, be paid for by the beneficiary (not reimbursed), and be reasonable (the standard charge in the community).

Normally an IRWE is used to offset the earnings in the month in which the expense has incurred; however, if a beneficiary makes one large payment, SSA may allow the IRWE deduction to be spread out over 12 months. If money is borrowed for a purchase (loan or credit card), SSA will deduct the actual payment made each month as an IRWE. SSA determines what expenses can be deducted after they are incurred based on the evidence and documentation provided by the beneficiary although prior consultation with an SSA representative is an option. (POMS DI 10520.001)

Here is a link to information about IRWEs on the SSA internet site: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/redbook/eng/ssdi-and-ssi-employments-supports.htm#a0=2

You may also contact a Community Work Incentives Coordinator (CWIC) who can answer questions about and may assist you with IRWEs through the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) program: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/work/WIPA.html