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The Social Security Administration’s five-step evaluation process for disability claims

The Social Security Administration has an established methodology for evaluating Social Security disability claims. It refers to this system as its five-step sequential evaluation process. As the title suggests, it consists of five steps, and these steps are taken in sequence.

The Social Security Administration’s first step in its disability evaluation

In its first step the Social Security Administration considers your work activity. The specific question it asks is whether you are doing “substantial gainful activity.”

The Social Security Administration then breaks this phrase into two parts, and evaluates separately whether any work that you might be doing is “substantial” and “gainful.”

“Substantial” means that the work involves doing significant physical or mental activities. Work may not be substantial if it involves minimal duties that make little or no demands on you or if it is of little or no use to your employer.

“Gainful” means that the work is the kind of work usually done for pay or profit. Proving this can sometimes be a problem if you are working for relatives or are self-employed.

The Social Security Administration’s second and third steps in its disability evaluation

In its second step the Social Security Administration evaluates whether or not your impairment is sufficiently medically severe, and whether or not it has lasted or is expected to last long enough. The duration requirement is that the disability must have lasted 12 months or be expected to last for 12 months, or be expected to result in death. The duration requirement is a problem with disabilities that come and go.

In its third step the Social Security Administration again evaluates the severity of your impairment, this time comparing it to impairments in a “Listing of Impairments.”

If the impairment from your disability either meets or equals one of the impairments in the Listing of Impairments then the evaluation process is finished because the Social Security Administration will find at that point that you qualify for disability benefits. However, if your impairment does not match one of the listings then the Social Security Administration continues to steps four and five.

The Social Security Administration’s fourth and fifth steps in its disability evaluation

In its fourth and fifth steps the Social Security Administration evaluates your “residual functional capacity.” This phrase refers to what you can do even though you now have the impairment of your disability.

In step four the Social Security Administration looks at whether or not you can do the kind of work that you have done in the past. This review goes back for jobs that you have had in the last 15 years, and it may be a problem if you had an easy job during this time period.

Even if you cannot do any job that you have done in the past, the Social Security Administration then goes to step five, and looks at whether or not you can do any other work. This can be a problem because it is so broad, and the Social Security Administration does not limit this to work in your geographic area.

Get help from an Atlanta disability lawyer

Working with the Social Security Administration on your own can be confusing and frustrating. Consider getting the help and guidance of an experienced Atlanta disability lawyer.

If you are not already represented by an Atlanta Social Security disability lawyer, ask for our evaluation of your claim. Give us a brief description of your claim using the form at the top of the page, or e-mail or call our office.

Alex Simanovsky
Atlanta Social Security disability lawyer


2300 Henderson Mill Road, Suite 300
Atlanta, Georgia 30345