September 29, 2016

Will Graduate Student Work Stipend Cause Paraplegic to Lose SSDI Benefits?

My April 26, 2008 post about attending college and applying for Social Security disability generated a large number of emails and questions.  A reader sent me this question which is about the impact of a stipend and part time job on an SSDI recipient who has already been deemed disabled.

I recently was injured and now am a paraplegic.  Before my injury I was an airline pilot but can no longer fly because of my disability.  I am returning to school to learn a new profession.  My question is “Will accepting aid such as a position as a graduate assistant be considered gainful employment?”  Depending on which school I attend and which program I enter, I will receive a tuition waiver and a stipend of anywhere from $6000 to $20000 a year for working 10 to 20 hours a week.  It is a merit based program; the more competitive I am the more assistance I will receive for basically the exact same duties.  I definitely cannot afford to go to school if I lose my SSDI but would hate to attend a lesser school just to stay under Social Securities’ income limit.  Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Here are my thoughts:  as a paraplegic, you meet the disability listing at 11.04 or under any one of the muculoskeletal listings (Listing 1.00).  At this point, I would assume that medically, there is not a likelihood that you will regain function in your lower extremities, meaning that you will continue to meet the listing on an ongoing basis.

10 to 20 hours a week is not full time employment, although part time employment taken in combination with full or part time school is substantial gainful activity.  It is certainly possible that when your employer reports income to Social Security it will trigger Social Security to review your case.  If you were only working 10 to 20 hours a week, and not attending school, you could argue that your employment was not equal to substantial gainful activity.  If you are getting special accomodations at work because of your medical condition, It would be helpful to document those special considerations.

Taken in combination part time work and school looks like substantial gainful activity –  it would be difficult to argue otherwise.  So, I think that there is a risk that your earnings and college attendance could trigger a continuing disability review, however, I wonder how likely that you will face this.  Your eligibility for benefits is a function of your medical condition and your medical condition is not one that will improve.

The money issue is a separate issue.

You can have earnings and still collect SSDI.   If you earn less than $670 per month, no problem.  If you earn more than $670 in a given month, that month counts as a "trial work period."  You still get your regular benefit check, but you use up one of your 9 trial work period months.  You can also claim necessary expenses against your gross earnings, meaning that your gross can be more than $670.

After you use up your 9 months of trial work, then you move into the "extended period of disability" where SSA will look at your earnings on a month by month basis.

I think you need to look at the eligibility issue and the money issue as separate problems.  SSA does not publish a set "formula" that might tell you what level or earnings and/or activity can trigger a review. 

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Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 29 years, Jonathan publishes a widely known disability blog, a podcast and several disability web sites. In 2004, Jonathan published a "how to" book about Social Security disability called the Disability Answer Guide. Jonathan lives with his wife and 2 children in Atlanta.


  1. Gerald W Riley says:

    If you follow what is referred to as the five step administrative review process then on an it could be said that your earnings of lets say $10000.00, on the average, in return for work of 10-20 hrs a week will technically keep you below the earning cutoff for 2008 ($11280 or $940 a month). Step 2 requires a severe impairment, which you have, and step 3 requires you meet or equal a listed condition which you do. Therefore you are eligible. However, lets say you case is reviewed because of your earnings. One question that I have is the money you received taxed by Social Security. If is not taxed then one could argue that it is a grant. The other way to approach this, the best way I think, is to ascertain the true financial value of your work. For example, lets say you do is research, and some is hired who is your age, education and work experience but is not disabled and does the same thing. They receive no stipend and it is just a job. Is the value of your work worth less than $940 a month? If it is then you may be able to argue the excess is a grant of gift and thus not countable. However, putting that aside, if you work 10-20 hrs a week plus attend school full time then on review they may show that you are able to work full time at a sedentary job. Unless you require special accommodations to work at a what is referred to as less than sedentary ( a job that requires sitting all day and no walking or standing) then your benefits appear to be in danger of termination.

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