The 5-Step Process Used by Social Security to Determine Disability

By Disability Group

When an Initial Application is filed, Social Security Administration uses a series of steps called “The 5 Step Sequential Evaluation Process” to determine if a person meets the requirements to be eligible for disability benefits. These steps are not just about a claimant’s conditions, but also include relevant information on their past work, age, and education. All of these factors play a role when Social Security determines who is disabled and who is not.

Step 1: Are you working? Social Security defines working as earning Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). Substantial means physical or mental activity and gainful is done for profit. The SGA amount for 2011 is $1,000 per month for a non-blind individual and $1,640 per month for a blind individual. If you are working, you will be denied at this first step.

Step 2: Do you have a severe impairment, expected to last at least 12 months or end in death? A severe impairment is one that significantly affects the ability to do work-related acts. If your condition is not severe or terminal, you will lose your claim here.

Step 3: Does your impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal the listings that SSA maintains? Social Security upholds a set of listings for medical conditions. These include listings on the Respiratory System, Cardiovascular System, Mental Disorders, and many more. A catalog of each listing along with a detailed explanation of each can be found at If your conditions meet or equal any of these listings, you will be awarded here. If not, your claim moves on to the next step.

Step 4: Are you able to return to Past Relevant Work? Social Security defines Past Relevant Work (PRW) as any work that has been performed in the past 15 years. Social Security performs a detailed evaluation of the claimant’s past jobs and the tasks and activities performed at each job and assesses the claimant’s Residual Function Capacity (RFC), which is a survey of how well the claimant is able to perform different tasks on a daily basis. If Social Security finds that you are able to return to any of your jobs from the past 15 years, you will lose your claim at this step.

Step 5: Considering your age, education, and past work experience, are there any other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that you are able to do? Social Security considers all the factors in your case (your conditions, your age, your education level, your RFC, and your PRW) to determine if there are any other jobs that you are able to perform. If they find that a job exists in the economy that you are able to work, even if you have not worked this job before, you will lose your claim. If they cannot find any job that you are able to return to, your case will be won at this final level.