Five step process for Social Security Disability

When a claim is initially filed for Social Security disability benefits the Social Security Administration (SSA) will apply a sequential evaluation that consists of five steps. If, at any point during the evaluation, you are found not to be disabled, the process will terminate and your claim for disability benefits will be terminated. At that point, the burden is on you to file any appeals that you may be entitled to. The following are the five steps that the SSA will take you through.

Step 1: Proving that you are not gainfully employed

If you earn more than the Federal Benefit Rate in any month during the period that you are claiming disability, you are considered gainfully employed regardless of the severity of your disability. For example, if you are single, confined to a wheelchair, have the use of only one arm, but you write magazine articles for a local publisher and earn more than the Federal Benefit Rate, you are considered gainfully employed are not disabled. It is irrelevant that your disability may be getting worse.

Step 2: Proving that your impairment is severe

This step was incorporated into the process so that the SSA could distinguish valid claims from the ones that do not have any real merit. However, the threshold for “severe” is not that great. Any claim in which the impairment results in a reduction in limitations from what the person could do before is considered severe. For example, if someone had a stroke and it weakened their left arm to the point that they can no longer lift ten pounds with it, it is considered severe.

Step 3: The severity of the impairment must meet or equal the medical listings

The SSA has a handbook that lists all medically recognizable disabilities.

Here is the link:

If your disability does not meet or equal the listings, the evaluation process proceeds to Steps 4 and 5.

Step 4: Proving that you cannot perform your past relevant work

Even if your disability does not meet or equal the listings, you may still be fund disabled based on vocational factors. This means that if you cannot perform any of the work that you did in the last fifteen years you may still be found to be disabled. If, however, you can perform certain work that you did in the past fifteen years, for example, a telephone-answering technician, you may not be able to meet this requirement.

Step 5: Proving that you cannot do other work available in the national economy

Here, you must prove that you have not learned or acquired any transferable skills to do any other work in the national economy. It does not matter whether an actual job exists. All the government has to do is show that the claimant can do some job for which he or she has the skills or ability.

In analyzing the five steps you will see that a claimant can be found disabled at either Step 3, because the disability meets or equals the listings, or at Step 5 because you cannot do your previous work or there is no work available in the national economy that you could perform despite your disability.[1]

[1] Berkley, Benjamin H., Win Your Social Security Disability Case, (Sphinx Legal, 2008)