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Volunteer Work and SSA Disability Benefits

Many Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income claimants want to know if they can volunteer when they are receivingSupplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. This is a great question and sounds like a good idea, especially if the severity of your condition varies and you have “good days and bad days,” but the answer to the question goes to the fundamental definition of disability according to the Social Security Administration: If you can work you are not disabled.

So, what does this really mean? It means that the Social Security Administration considers that a disability, by its very definition, means you do not have the capability to perform what they call “substantial gainful activity” for at least 12 continuous months due to a severe mental or physical health condition.

So is voluntary work considered “work”? Let’s take a look at what the SSA considers work for more information. The SSA considers work as working too many hours or making too much money. They call this performing substantial gainful activity. If the Social Security Administration believes you are performing substantial gainful activity they will automatically consider you not disabled and will deny your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) case. They will do this without ever requesting your medical records or evaluating the severity of your health condition.

Volunteer work does not generate a profit

It is true that volunteer work does not generate a profit so it would pass the first test for work which determines if the work is gainful. Gainful work is work that produces an income of higher than a specific monthly amount. In2012, the amount a non-blind claimant can make is $1,010 per month and a statutorily blind individual can make $1,690.

BUT the Social Security Administration (SSA) is also interested in whether or not the work is substantial. To determine if you are performing substantial work the SSA will look at the amount of time you are working and the physical and mental exertion.

So, consider the types of volunteer work you are performing and the amount of hours spent engaging in these activities. Depending on the complexity of the tasks and the amount of time you are dedicating to the activities, the SSA may determine that if you are able to perform the volunteer work than you could also engage in substantial gainful activity.

For example, if you are delivering meals for The Meals on Wheels program one time per week this might not be considered substantial, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) is unlikely to assume that one hour per week of driving a car would compare in complexity or  effort to maintaining full-time employment. But what if you were volunteering at a soup kitchen for 30 hours per week? It is not a stretch to assume that the Social Security Administration (SSA) may decide that if you could volunteer your time for this many hours each week you may be able to work a job.

What’s the Bottom Line?

When the Social Security Administration is evaluating your activities, such as volunteer work, they are evaluating not only your earnings but also whether or not the exertion (either mental or physical) is comparable to work. Keep in mind, your work may be substantial even if it is done on a part-time basis or if you do less, get paid less, or have less responsibility than when you worked before. If you are working too much when you apply for Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance the SSA will deny your claim, regardless of the severity of your health conditions.


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