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Sequential Evaluation: 5 Steps of Social Security Disability Qualification

The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether you are disabled and entitled to disability benefits. Each step is evaluated sequentially based on submitted evidence. If a step helps to reach a conclusion on whether you are disabled or not disabled, the SSA will not move on to the next step. However, if the SSA cannot determine disability at a step, it will go on to the next step of the sequential evaluation. Here are the five steps that the SSA will follow sequentially to determine your eligibility for disability benefits:

Step 1: Have you been unable to work for a period of 12 months?

If you have not worked, or engaged in “substantial gainful activity,” the SSA will move on to step 2. However, if you have been working, the SSA will deny your claim at this step. In many cases, the SSA will also deny a claim if you are not able to work but 12 months have not lapsed.

Step 2: Do you have a severe medical impairment?

In this step, the SSA will evaluate the severity of your medical impairment. To be considered disabled, your condition must prevent you from performing work-related activities. Unless you have not undergone a proper medical evaluation or testing, your claim will likely move to the next step.

Step 3: Does the severity of your impairment meet a listing?

The SSA references an exhaustive list of severe medical conditions called the Listing of Impairments (Listings) that can automatically deem you disabled. If your condition is not in the Listings, the SSA will decide if it is of equal severity to a listed condition. Please note that in many instances, claimants’ medical conditions are not severe enough to appear in the Listings and the claim will go to Step 4.

Note: Between steps 3 and 4, the SSA will determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). The RFC is work you can perform despite your impairment. Here, the past 15 years of your work history will be taken into consideration. Your previous job duties will be categorized as sedentary, light, medium or heavy, and ability to perform specific tasks, such as lifting capacity, will be taken into account.

Step 4: Can you still perform your past relevant work?

At this step, the SSA will evaluate whether your impairment interferes with your ability to perform the work you did previously. If your RFC is less than your past relevant work, your claim will proceed to the next step. If you are still able to perform duties despite your RFC, you claim will be denied.

Step 5: Can you perform other work?

In the final step, the SSA will evaluate your ability to perform a job other than the one you previously held. Your RFC, age, education, experience and skills will be taken into consideration. If you cannot adjust to another job or type of work, you will be granted disability and your claim will be approved. If it is deemed that you can adjust to another type of work—whether or not a job is available—your claim will be denied.

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