Can Your Disability Benefits Be Taken Away?
Social Security disability benefits are rarely terminated due to medical improvement, but SSI recipients can lose their benefits if they have too much income or assets.
Although it is rare, there are circumstances under which the Social Security Administration (SSA) can end a person’s disability benefits. Discussed below are common reasons that one's disability benefits can be terminated.
Continuing Disability Reviews
About every three years a recipient’s case must undergo a Continuing Disability Review (CDR). The CDR is conducted by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to make sure the recipient still meets the eligibility requirements for disability, or if his or her condition has improved so much that the recipient can return to work.
Timing of Reviews
CDRs usually happen about every three years. If a recipient is over the age of 50, or if the medical condition is unlikely to ever improve, a CDR may happen only every seven years.
Sometimes the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who approves a claim after a disability hearing decides that it is likely that the recipient’s condition will get better. In these cases, the ALJ can require that the case be reviewed sooner than three years. If the ALJ thinks a claim should be reviewed sooner than three years, he or she will include this in the written decision.
Once a CDR is scheduled, the case is sent to the recipient’s local Disability Determination Service (DDS) agency. DDS will look over any new medical evidence in the recipient’s case and may send the recipient to be examined by a Social Security doctor.
Review Standard for Stopping Benefits
Adult CDRs. Adult disability benefits can be taken away only if the evidence shows that:
- the individual has had medical improvement, as it relates to his or her ability to work, and
- the individual has the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA), defined as earning $1,130 per month (in 2016) from working.
Child CDRs. A child recipient can also undergo a continuing disability review, but a child’s claim is reviewed differently than an adults. A child’s benefits will be discontinued if:
- there has been medical improvement, and
- the impairments no longer result in “marked” or “severe” restrictions functional limitations.
A child’s benefits can also end if the child has failed to follow prescribed treatment, the location of the child is unknown, or if there has been fraud or failure to cooperate.
(For more how these reviews work, please see What Is a Continuing Disability Review?)
Working Too Much
One of the basic disability requirements is that the disability prevents the person from working at the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level (for 2016 this means earning $1,130 a month or more.) When a Social Security disability recipient undergoes a periodic review, the SSA will review the recipient’s earnings. If the recipient is earning above the SGA amount, disability benefits will be stopped, even if the work is only part-time.
However, keep in mind that even if a recipient isn’t getting paid to do work, the SSA can still decide the recipient is a substantial work activity and terminate benefits. This can happen when the amount and type of work the recipient is doing would be paid at the SGA level under different circumstances. Volunteer positions or work done for family members are examples of unpaid work that could be interpreted as substantial work activities.
If the money is earned through a return to work plan, the earnings should not trigger a CDR. Examples of these work plans include Plan to Self Support (PASS) and Ticket to Work.
SSI recipients. Unlike SSDI recipients, people who receive SSI can work at the SGA without losing benefits. However, the recipient must have been receiving benefits for a month before returning to work, still be disabled, and meet the other requirements for disability.
If a child receives SSI benefits because of a disability, the SSA will conduct a re-determination of eligibility when the child turns 18. During the re-determination period, the SSA will continue to pay benefits to the child. The SSA will review the records of the almost 18-year-old to see if the child is eligible to keep receiving disability benefits, reviewing the case under adult disability standards.
If a child received benefits based on a parent's eligibility (due to the parent's disability or death), those benefits may stop when the child turns 18. However, if the child is disabled, those benefits can continue (see our article on receiving disability as an adult child). Or, if the child is a full-time student, the payments can continue until the child is nineteen.
The SSA will send a notice when it is time for it to make a re-determination of benefits. The recipient must respond to the notice, or benefits may be discontinued. If the SSA determines the child is not eligible for adult disability benefits, the decision can be appealed.
If a disability recipient is incarcerated, for either a felony or misdemeanor, his or her benefits will be stopped, either temporarily or permanently. When the benefits stop depend on whether the recipient is getting Social Security or SSI benefits.
SSI. Benefits for SSI will be suspended after one month of incarceration. For example, if the recipient’s sentence begins on January 1, benefits will stop on February 1. When the recipient is released, benefits can restart, but the recipient must provide the SSA with proof of release.
Retirement, survivor, or disability benefits. Any disability benefits other than SSI will discontinue on the date of the claimant’s conviction. For example, if the recipient is incarcerated on January 15 but is not convicted until May 15, the recipient’s benefits will be stopped in May. When the recipient is released, benefits can restart but the recipient must provide the SSA with proof of release.
Specific crimes. Some crimes may make a recipient ineligible for benefits. For more information, see DisabilitySecrets.com's article on felony crimes and disability. These rules also apply to people in halfway houses. However, individuals under home-monitoring are eligible for continued benefits.
When a disability recipient who is eligible for retirement reaches full retirement age, his or her Social Security disability benefits will simply convert from disability benefits to retirement benefits. Because full retirement benefits are generally equal to SSDI payments, benefit amounts will not change.
If the SSA determines that a recipient’s disability claim was in anyway fraudulent, benefits will cease and the person may face criminal charges. A recipient will be prosecuted for fraud and lose benefits if he or she knowingly:
- gives false information about his or her identity (such as Social Security number)
- gives a false statement about or misrepresents facts material to his or her disability case
- gives false information about how much money he or she has earned
- gives false information about whether or not he or she is self-employed
- hides or doesn’t report anything that might affect his or her rights to benefits, and
- uses someone else’s benefit money for anything other than the support of the person entitled to the benefit.
Changes in Assets or Income
For SSI recipients, changes in assets or income can result in a loss or reduction of benefits.
Income. The SSA counts both earned (wages) and unearned (such as alimony) income toward the income limit. For 2016, the individual income limit is $733; income over that amount can cause a reduction in benefits.
Assets. To be eligible for SSI, a person cannot have more than $2,000 in assets. Assets are things of value that a person owns (like investments.) Not all assets are counted when the SSA determines a person’s assets. For example, if a person owns his or her primary residence, the SSA will not count this as an asset. However, if an SSI recipient acquires new assets, such as other real estate, if the value of that property exceeds $2,000, benefits will stop.
Free food and shelter. If a recipient receives free food and shelter, the SSA will count this as "in-kind" income that can affect benefits. An example is where a recipient lives with a child who pays the recipient’s living expenses.
Family income. The income of parents and spouses will be used to determine an SSI recipient’s continued eligibility. For child recipients, a portion of parental income is counted to determine eligibility. For a married SSI recipient, the SSA will count the spouse’s income when determining eligibility.
An individual’s disability benefits cease at death. However, the person’s family members may become eligible for survivor or widow(er) benefits.
See an Expert
If your benefits have been stopped, it may be helpful to speak with an experienced disability attorney to discuss your case.