The 5 Step Disability Evaluation Process

The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if an applicant is entitled to Social Security Disability benefits. SSA will consider each step before moving onto the next step. Below is a basic explanation of each step.

1. Has the applicant been unable to work for 12 months?

Has the applicant engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) for at least 12 months? If not, the SSA will move on to Step 2.

If the applicant has engaged in SGA, SSA will oftentimes not even consider the medical impairments and deny the claim at Step 1.

SGA is earnings averaging over $1,090/month or $1,820 (for blind workers).

2. Does the applicant have a severe medical impairment?
The applicant’s alleged medical conditions must be considered to be “severe” and “medically determinable.”

Most applicants have at least one medical condition demonstrated through examinations and diagnostic testing that will get them to Step 3.

3. Does the severity of the applicant’s impairment meet a Listing of Impairment (Listings)?

SSA has an exhaustive list of medical conditions called the Listing of Impairments. Under each listing, there is a description of a certain severity level for that impairment. If the medical evidence shows that an applicant meets that level of severity, the applicant is entitled to benefits at Step 3. If they are not found to meet a Listing, the evaluation continues at Step 4.

Adult Listing of Impairments
Child Listing of Impairments

4. Can the applicant perform their past relevant work?

SSA will look at all the jobs the applicant has performed over the past 15 years and categorize them as sedentary, light, medium or heavy work.

SSA will determine an applicant’s residual functional capacity (RFC) based on what the applicant can still do despite his or her impairments. If the applicant’s RFC is less than their past relevant work, SSA proceeds to Step 5.

If an applicant can still perform their past relevant work, they are not entitled to disability benefits and will be denied at Step 4.

5. Can the applicant perform any other work?

Are there any other types of jobs, besides the one the applicant performed, that the applicant can do now?

SSA looks to the applicant’s age, education and job skills to determine whether there is any other work he or she can still do.

If SSA feels that the applicant can adjust to other work, the disability claim is denied.

If there are no other jobs the applicant can perform, they are granted disability benefits at Step 5.