How Does the SSA Determine Whether or Not You're Capable of Earning a Living?

Published on: July 28, 2017

Social Security Admin Cost of Living

When you apply for disability benefits, the Social Security Administration follows a process through which it determines whether or not you’re capable of earning a living. This will be the major determining factor when they evaluate your application for disability benefits.

To assist the SSA in determining your ability to work, they follow a 5-step process that evaluates many factors, such as your previous work history, age, educational background and medical condition.

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The criteria that the SSA uses to determine whether or not you’re capable of earning a living is as follows:

1. Are You Currently Working?

When evaluating your application, the SSA will consider if you’re currently working and how much you currently earn as a result of that work. Generally, if you are working and obtaining earnings of more than $1,170/month, you cannot be considered disabled and you will be denied benefits. This is because the SSA will determine that you are able to engage in gainful activity that is enabling you to earn a living.

If you’re currently unable to work, the SSA will forward your application to the Disability Determination Services (DDS). The DDS is an agency that contains doctors and specialists who will determine how your current medical condition is preventing you from working.

2. Is Your Condition Present on the List of Disabling Conditions?

The Social Security Administration keeps a list of disabling conditions that are determined to be so severe that they automatically mean you are disabled and qualify for benefits. If you are diagnosed with any of the conditions on this list, you are automatically determined to be unable to work and earn a living.

The purpose of the SSA having this list is so that applicants with the greatest need for benefits are given priority during the application process. If your medical condition is not present on the list, the SSA considers other factors in order to determine the extent of your disability.

3. Does Your Condition Prevent You From Engaging in Any Gainful Activity?

The next step is for the Social Security Admin to determine how your medical condition is preventing you from working. The SSA, through the Disability Determination Services, will analyze all the medical evidence that you have provided in your application.

The SSA considers what your medical condition was when it began, evidence that the condition exists and how it limits your ability to work. One way they do this is through analyzing your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a medical analysis of your ability to do basic work-related activities, such as walking, sitting, carrying and lifting.

Your doctor will be asked to fill an RFC form that details your ability to carry out such functions. RFC also applies to mental capabilities, such as understanding instructions and remembering things.

4. Can You Engage in the Work You Did Previously?

In determining the extent of your social security disability benefits, the SSA will take into consideration previous work history and how your current condition prevents you from engaging in that line of work. Your disability must be preventing you from engaging in any previous work that you were doing in order for the SSA to determine that you’re not capable of earning a living.

The SSA looks at the nature of the previous work that you were doing and compares it with your current abilities based on your medical condition. If the SSA determines that you are not physically or mentally capable of doing your previous work, they will proceed to the next step, in which they determine your ability to do any other work.

5. Can You Do Any Other Work?

The final step that the SSA considers before determining your capability of earning a living is whether you’re able to do any other type of work. When approaching this determination, the SSA considers factors such as age, skills, and education. These factors can influence your ability to do certain kinds of work.

For example, a 50-year-old factory worker who has been doing the same job for many years and gets an injury that prevents him from going back to work will be treated differently from a 25-year old college graduate. The college graduate will likely be determined to be able to perform some other type of work based on his/her skill-set.

In other words, the SSA determines whether or not you are able to engage in any other type of work that can earn you a living based on how old you are, your skills and educational background.

Through this 5-step process, the Social Security Administration is able to determine whether or not you’re capable of earning a living. This will be the basis upon which your application will be evaluated for the granting of disability benefits.

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