Since its inception in 1935, Social Security has helped millions of the disabled and elderly avoid the worst kinds of financial hardship. Today, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) pays monthly benefits to thousands of workers who have become disabled before retirement age and cannot work. Those who apply for SSDI benefits must have worked and paid Social Security (FICA) taxes for a number of years – the specifics depend on the applicant’s age and a long list of other factors.

You would think that the word “disability” can be easily defined, but for someone to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance payments, a person must have a “disability” according to the Social Security Administration’s rather narrow definition of the word. Additionally, to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance payments, someone’s medical condition must be serious enough that it has lasted or is expected to linger for at least a year. The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not provide disability payments for temporary medical conditions that are projected to heal within a year.

The SSA defines a “disability” as a medical condition that prevents someone from “substantial gainful activity.” What is substantial gainful activity? Substantial gainful activity (or “SGA”) can be employment or volunteer work. One of the basic requirements for obtaining Social Security disability payments is that your medical condition must prevent you from doing “substantial gainful activity” that earns (as of 2017) $1,170 or more each month (or $1,950 for blind persons).


If the SSA determines that you are working at or above the permissible SGA level, you do not qualify for Social Security disability benefits. If you are already receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits (not Supplemental Security Income or “SSI”) and you begin work that earns an amount above the SGA level, your benefits could be terminated. But even if you’re not earning money, you may still be engaged in what the SSA calls substantial gainful activity.

SGA is more than a specified amount of income. Volunteer activity, criminal activity, or running a small business “on the side” may all be considered substantial gainful activity by the SSA even if you’re not earning money. Confused? You’re not alone. That’s why anyone seeking to obtain disability benefits in southern California will need the advice and services of an experienced Los Angeles Social Security disability lawyer. To understand how all of this works, we have to look at two more definitions – how the SSA defines “substantial” and “gainful.”

Substantial activity means significant physical or mental activity. Work can be “substantial” even if a person can only work part-time, or if someone doesn’t work or earn as much as he or she did before becoming disabled. Usually, “gainful” activity is activity that someone is paid for, but even if someone isn’t paid, if the activity if usually an activity that is paid, the SSA may consider the activity “gainful.”

Here’s a specific example of how this might play out in a real situation. Let’s say that you file for disability on the basis of diabetes and high blood pressure, but you quickly become bored without work so you volunteer to “help” a friend or relative who owns a small business by answering phones or greeting customers. Even though you are not paid, the SSA might determine that your work is work that someone is normally paid to do. And that might disqualify you for disability benefits.


What kind of activity is not considered SGA? A person’s basic daily routine and household chores, attending school, any kind of physical, mental, or occupational therapy, and most social activities would not be considered substantial gainful activity. But anyone applying for disability benefits should understand that while these activities may not be considered substantial or gainful by the SSA, they may still be considered when the SSA decides if someone is or isn’t disabled. If your social activities include active participation in amateur sports – a church softball league, for example – the SSA may decide that you’re not disabled enough to receive benefits.

If someone is active as a volunteer, the SSA may scrutinize that activity. The SSA may decide that the volunteer activity demonstrates the person’s ability to work and the person, therefore, is not disabled. Even if the SSA determines that someone is disabled, it may still decide that the volunteer work is SGA that disqualifies the person from receiving disability benefits. The SSA may look at how many hours are spent volunteering and at the physical and mental requirements of those activities.

Under the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973, volunteer work with any of these groups is exempted from consideration as substantial gainful activity:

  • Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA)
  • Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE)
  • Retired Senior Volunteer Program
  • Foster Grandparent Program
  • University Year for ACTION
  • Active Corps of Executives


“Passive income” – for example, the income someone may receive from retirement funds, investments, or similar sources – does not affect eligibility for SSDI benefits, although it may affect someone’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income benefits. The substantial gainful activity “test” is applied only to the income that someone earns (or could be earning) from working while claiming to be disabled.

If someone applies for SSDI benefits while self-employed – whether the self-employment is freelancing, contracting, or a small business – the rules are somewhat different. The SSA understands that income may not be the true measure of how much someone is working.

If someone pays self-employment taxes for enough years, that person will qualify for SSDI benefits just as if he or she worked for an employer who pays FICA taxes on behalf of employees. But if someone owns a business and still does some work, the SSA will not approve disability benefits if it deems the work substantial gainful activity.

Applying for SSDI benefits can get even more complicated and confusing. What we have covered here is only the beginning. Anyone who applies for disability benefits in southern California must have the advice and guidance of an experienced Los Angeles Social Security disability lawyer who can explain how the SSA’s rules regarding substantial gainful activity impact you and your eligibility to receive disability benefits.