The Social Security Administration uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to decide whether you are disabled. These rules apply to you if you file any of the following applications for disability benefits: Supplemental Security Income benefits; Social Security Disability Insurance benefits; child’s insurance benefits; and widow’s or widower’s benefits. Social Security will consider all evidence in your case record when it makes a decision whether you are disabled under its rules.
The Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process
The sequential evaluation process is a series of five “steps” Social Security follows in a set order in deciding a disability claim. If it can find that you are disabled or not disabled at a step, Social Security makes its decision and it does not move to the next step. If Social Security cannot find you are disabled (or not disabled) at a step, then it moves on to the next step.
Before its goes from Step 3 to Step 4, it will assess your “residual functional capacity.” (See paragraph (d) below.) Social Security uses this residual functional capacity assessment at both Step 4 and Step 5 when it evaluates your claim at these steps.
These are the five steps Social Security follows:
1. Are You Working?
At the first step, Social Security consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity (SGA), Social Security will find that you are not disabled. In 2023, if you are working and your earnings average more than $1,470 a month (for non-blind individuals), you are considered to be engaging in SGA and generally cannot be considered disabled.
If you are not working, Social Security goes to Step 2.
2. Is Your Condition “Severe”?
At the second step, Social Security considers the medical severity of your impairment(s). Your condition must interfere with basic work-related activities for your claim to be considered. If it does not, Social Security will find that you are not disabled.
If your condition does interfere with basic work-related activities, Social Security goes on to Step 3.
3. Is Your Condition Found in the List of Disabling Conditions?
At the third step, Social Security also considers the medical severity of your impairment(s).
For each of the major body systems, Social Security maintains a list of medical conditions that are so severe they automatically mean that you are disabled. This is known as the Listing of Impairments.
If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals the requirements of one of its Listings of Impairment and meets the duration requirement, Social Security will find that you are disabled.
If your condition is not on the list, Social Security has to decide if your condition is of equal severity to a medical condition that is on the list.
Note: Social Security has two initiatives designed to expedite its processing of new disability claims:
Certain cases that usually qualify for disability can be allowed as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed. Examples include acute leukemia, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and pancreatic cancer. The SSA has compiled a list of Compassionate Allowances conditions.
Quick Disability Determinations
Social Security uses sophisticated computer screening to identify cases with a high probability of allowance for the Quick Disability Determinations initiative.
If your impairment does not meet or equal a listing, then Social Security goes to Step 4.
4. Can You Do the Work You Did Previously?
If your condition is severe but not at the same or equal level of severity as a medical condition on the list, then Social Security must determine if it interferes with your ability to do the work you did previously (your “past relevant work”).
At the fourth step, Social Security considers its assessment of the abilities you still have even with your disabling conditions (your residual functional capacity) and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, Social Security will find that you are not disabled.
If you cannot do your past relevant work, Social Security proceeds to Step 5.
5. Can You Do Any Other Type of Work?
At the fifth and last step, Social Security will decide if you are able to adjust to other work. It will consider your medical conditions and your age, education, past work experience and any transferable skills you may have. If you cannot adjust to other work, your claim will be approved. If you can adjust to other work, your claim will be denied.