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How Does Social Security Determine If I Am Disabled?

How Social Security determines whether you are disabled seems like a mystery. Just what does Social Security do with all of the information they collect? What questions do they ask to determine if you qualify? Though not always apparent, each time Social Security makes a determination on your case, they go through a “five step sequential evaluation process.” In essence, they ask a series of five questions. The answers to those questions determines whether or not you are considered disabled under their standard. This article explains those five steps.

Step 1: Are you engaging in Substantial Gainful Activity?

The first question Social Security asks is whether you are engaging in work activity. The amount of income that is considered substantial gainful activity changes each year. If you are earning above this amount, Social Security will deny your case. If you are not working, or are working but earning less than the limit, the evaluation proceeds to Step 2.

Step 2: Is your condition severe?

A “severe” condition is one that interferes with basic work related activities such as standing, walking, seeing, hearing, understanding, and carrying out instructions. If you have more than one condition, Social Security will consider whether the combination of impairments is severe. If your condition is not severe, Social Security will deny your case. If your condition is severe, the evaluation proceeds to Step 3.

Step 3: Does your condition meet or equal a listing?

Social Security maintains a list of conditions which are so severe that they are automatically considered disabling. If your condition is on this list and is severe enough to meet the criteria set out by Social Security, they will find you are disabled. If your condition is not including on the list you may still be disabled under Step 3 if your condition is equal in severity to a listed conditions. Please note that a physician must document that you meet the criteria or that your condition is of equal severity in order for you to be approved at this step. If your condition does not meet or equal a listing, Social Security proceeds to Step 4.

Step 4: Can you perform your past relevant work?

At Step 4, Social Security considers what you remain able to do, taking into account the limitations imposed by your conditions. This is called your “Residual Functional Capacity” or RFC. They compare your RFC to the demands of work you performed within the past 15 years. If you are able to perform this work, they will determine you are not disabled. If you are not able to perform your past work, they proceed to Step 5.

Step 5: Is there other work that exists in the national economy that you can perform?

At this step, Social Security considers your age, education, and past work experience to determine whether you can adjust to different work. If they determine that you are able to adjust and perform other work, you are not considered disabled. If you are not able to perform other work, they will find you disabled and approve your case.

The above is meant as a general guide to the five step sequential evaluation process. There are many complexities and details that go along with making the determination at each step. Portnoy Disability can address how each step of the process applies in your specific case.

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