Disabled and Working? Don’t Get Into a Legal Jam.

May 16, 2017

Commentary by Tom Nash

Recently, Nash attorney Dan Rosen and I took a call from a federal criminal defense attorney. He told us about his client, a woman who had received as much as $1,000 a month in Social Security disability benefits every month since 2009, and as a result, she also was eligible for Medicare. As it turns out, she was quite sick with muscular dystrophy, Sjogren’s syndrome (a systemic autoimmune disease that can affect the entire body), sarcoidosis (an inflammatory disease which mostly attacks the lungs and lymph glands), and rheumatoid arthritis. However, despite the severity of her illnesses, she went back to work shortly after her claim for SSDI benefits was approved, but was being paid “under the table.” She did this until someone turned her in – it may have been an enemy, but it could have been a family member (which is not at all uncommon).

Because we deal with Social Security Disability issues every day, we often get calls where people tell us about a neighbor down the street who is getting a disability check yet he mows his lawn, or some similar story. In a lot of those cases, the callers don’t realize that it may be perfectly legitimate. Social Security has all kinds of rules encouraging people to regain an ability to work. For example, the rules allow a trial work period, although it can get complicated. “During a trial work period,” SSA says on its website, “a beneficiary receiving Social Security disability benefits may test his or her ability to work and still be considered disabled. We do not consider services performed during the trial work period as showing that the disability has ended until services have been performed in at least 9 months (not necessarily consecutive) in a rolling 60-month period.” SSA even has Twitter feed called “Choose Work,” aimed at motivating disability recipients to seek employment. 

But in the case of the woman who was the subject of the phone call, she was hiding her work, and the government says she got $140,000 that she wasn’t supposed to. Now she has to deal with a federal criminal defense lawyer who knows that she will be prosecuted, and he’s hoping he can help her avoid prison time. But, to make matters worse, she also got a letter challenging her Medicare benefits. She is 62 years old now, is living hand-to-mouth, and obviously is very ill. While her situation is serious, SSA gets really upset when somebody fakes a disability, which doesn’t happen that often. 

The moral of this story is that if you are receiving Social Security disability benefits, the government is entitled to know if you return to work. So be honest and keep good records, or you could get in a real jam.