What are the steps in the disability evaluation process?

For the purposes of Social Security disability benefits, disability is determined according to a five-step sequential process. For your claim to be successful, you must prove the following:

1. You are not engaging in “substantial gainful activity.” If you are engaged in work that is both “substantial” (significant physical and mental activities) and “gainful” (paid work or the type of work that is usually done for pay), then the process is terminated at this step and you will not be eligible for benefits.

2. You have a “severe” impairment. This means that your impairment must be “medically determinable” (there must be medical evidence of your impairment) and it must cause a significant reduction in your functioning. There is also a duration requirement: the impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for at least a continuous period of 12 months, or be expected to result in death.

3. At Step Three, the SSA determines whether your impairment meets or “equals” one of the impairments described in the Social Security regulations called “Listing of Impairments.” If it does, then you will be eligible for benefits, and Steps Four and Five are not necessary. However, if your impairment does not meet or equal one of the listings, then you must proceed to Steps Four and Five.

4. At Step Four, your past relevant work is considered, and you must prove that you are unable to do any of the work you have performed in the past 15 years, considering your “residual functioning capacity.” If you are capable of doing such work, you will not be eligible for benefits. If you cannot do your past relevant work, then you proceed to Step Five.

5. At Step Five, you must prove that you are unable to do other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering your functioning capacity, age, education and work experience. If you prove you cannot do this other work, you will be eligible for benefits.

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