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Defining substantial gainful activity for disability benefits

One of the requirements of being awarded Social Security Disability benefits in Philadelphia is that the applicant is unable to perform any substantial gainful activity. What does this term mean?

The Social Security Administration uses the phrase "substantial gainful activity" to determine the applicant's ability to perform their job duties and earn an income. First of all, lets look at the word "substantial." Per the SSA, an applicant's employment activities are considered substantial if they require significant mental or physical duties. It is not required that the worker be a full-time employee when considering whether their duties are substantial.

Next lets look at the word "gainful." Gainful can have several meanings. It could mean paid employment duties or those duties that in general are done for pay, as well as work that is performed with the intention of making a profit, regardless of whether a profit is actually seen.

When determining how much of an applicant's earnings per month will be deemed as substantial gainful activity, the SSA will look at the nature of the applicant's physical or mental disability. The amount may be higher if the applicant is blind. In general, the substantial gainful activity earnings amount is $1,090 or higher.

If the applicant is self-employed there are three tests that will be considered when determining that applicant's substantial gainful activity. The first test looks at the applicant's services to the business, and determines whether this activity is significant. In addition, under the first test the applicant's average income per month must be more than $1,090 to be considered substantial gainful activity. The second test determines how the work activities performed by the applicant compare to those performed by those in a similar community and course of employment who are not disabled. The third test looks at whether the work the applicant is able to earn greater than the substantial gainful activity level income in comparison to what it could cost to pay another worker to perform the same duties.

As this shows, determining what is considered substantial gainful activity can be complicated. This post is for general purposes only. Those who are seeking benefits should make sure they have all the information they need to completely and accurately work through the Social Security disability process. Working with a professional may be a good idea.

Source: 2015 Red Book, "How Do We Define Disability?" accessed March 1, 2015

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Pennsylvania Bar Association Philadelphia Bar Co-Chair SSD Committee Philadelphia Bar Co-Chair SSD Committee