VA disability benefits aim to help replace the income veterans would earn from work had they not been injured due to their time in service. So, is it possible to make money and collect disability benefits?
In general, yes. But there are exceptions. In this article, we’ll clarify when veterans can work and still receive disability payments.
Working During the VA Claims Process
Could working while applying for disability benefits or appealing a claim hurt your chances? In most cases, earning an income won’t affect the VA’s decision. However, some types of disability ratings can be challenging to obtain if you are working.
Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU) benefits require that your service-connected disability has rendered you unemployable, so working and earning an income during the TDIU claims process could negate your argument.
The same goes for psychiatric disabilities, including anxiety disorder, major depression disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, cognitive disorders, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) effects. Service-connected mental disabilities can be difficult to prove to the VA in the first place, even more so when you are seeking a 100% disability compensation rating for a mental disability.
Because the degree of mental disability can be difficult to measure, VA uses a different set of criteria when rating mental disabilities versus physical disabilities. For mental disorder ratings, VA weighs the level of occupational and social impairment – as evidenced by witness statements, medical opinion, service records, and – importantly – current and past work history.
By definition, the 100% disability rating criteria require the complete inability to sustain employment. Veterans seeking a 100% disability rating for mental conditions must show total occupational and social impairment.
Proving to the VA that your time in service caused such a severe mental condition that you cannot financially support yourself becomes very challenging if you are earning an income during the VA claims or appeals process.
Even a 70% disability rating for mental health conditions will require an inability to work more than part-time. For a 70% rating, veterans must show difficulty maintaining employment, school attendance, relationships, mood, or problem-solving due to things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, hygiene negligence, panic disorder, suicidal ideation, severe depression, or impaired impulse control.
Importantly, veterans with a 70% disability rating for mental conditions who can work part-time may be better candidates for TDIU. In contrast, veterans with a 70% disability rating for mental disorders who cannot work at all would be more qualified for a 100% disability rating.
Working With a 100% Disability Rating
The VA uses the severity of your health condition to calculate how much disability compensation you qualify for, assigning a disability rating ranging from zero to 100 percent.
No matter where you fall on this scale, veterans can still legally work, even full-time, even at a 100 percent disability rating (single or combined).
However, to collect TDIU benefits, veterans must show that their service-connected disability renders them unable to maintain “substantially gainful employment.”
Working While Collecting TDIU Benefits
From the above, it sounds like veterans who get TDIU benefits can’t work at all. But this is not the case. Under certain criteria, veterans can still earn money while collecting TDIU benefits.
Self-Employment and Freelance Work
What if a veteran earns a little side money, helps out a local business, sells collectibles or artwork online? Can they still collect TDIU benefits? Yes. As long as the veteran doesn’t have “substantially gainful employment,” they can still work and receive TDIU benefits.
So what qualifies as substantially gainful employment? As of March 2019, VA defines substantially gainful employment as “employment that is ordinarily followed by the nondisabled to earn their livelihood with earnings common to the particular occupation in the community where the veteran resides.”
Therefore, if you earn an annual amount that’s above the poverty line for your area (as set by the Census Bureau), the VA can discontinue your TDIU benefits.
Therefore, a veteran who sells items on eBay or receives money for small side jobs can still collect TDIU disability benefits - as long as they aren’t making more than the poverty line in their area.
Marginal Employment and TDIU Benefits
Another way veterans can work while receiving TDIU benefits is to earn money from “marginal employment.” VA considers several different scenarios as marginal employment, including:
- Working less than part-time hours for a particular job.
- Collecting less than half the average wage for a particular job.
- Working for family or friends in a job tailored to your abilities (protected employment)
Remember, no two veterans’ circumstances are the same, and numerous exceptions may apply to your specific situation.
If you are currently applying for VA benefits, appealing a VA decision, or collecting disability benefits, and have questions about employment or earnings, we can help. Call us at 888.878.9350 or fill out our Online Form.