Social Security Disability and the Doctor's Residual Functional Capacity Form (RFC)

Your doctor's RFC form may be the most important part of your disability case.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

An RFC form assesses a disability claimant's "residual functional capacity" (RFC). A claimant's RFC is what remains of their ability to work, after taking into account their mental or physical disability. To help determine whether a Social Security disability claimant is disabled, Disability Determination Services (DDS), a state agency, does a residual functional capacity assessment using evidence from the claimant's medical records. In addition, you can ask your treating doctor to fill out a residual functional capacity form for you, and DDS should take that into account when developing your RFC.

DDS's Process for Completing an RFC Form

While making a decision on a claimant's case, a DDS disability examiner does a write-up as part of the initial assessment of the case. In the write-up, the examiner will explain the reasoning behind his or her decision to approve or deny the claim. As part of the decision-making process, the examiner must take the case to a doctor or psychologist who works for DDS (usually right down the hall). The medical consultant or psychological consultant will complete an RFC form for the claimant. The examiner will then use the RFC assessment to make a disability decision.

Filling Out a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Form

The DDS physician will read the medical evidence in the claimant's file. Then, on the physical RFC form, the physician will rate the claimant's residual functional capacity—the claimant's ability to engage in normal daily activities, taking into account the claimant's condition. For instance, physical RFC forms will ask questions about how long a claimant can sit, stand, walk, crouch, bend, and stoop. The physical RFC will also give the medical consultant's opinion regarding how much a claimant can lift (in pounds) on an occasional or frequent basis and how well that claimant can grasp, manipulate, and reach overhead.

Filling Out a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Form

A mental RFC form, completed by a DDS psychologist or psychiatrist, will make reference to a claimant's mental symptoms (for example, poor memory, decreased energy, illogical thinking, and so on). The mental residual functional capacity form will also indicate a claimant's ability to pay attention, follow instructions, and concentrate, as well as a claimant's ability to interact socially in work settings, take in and use new information, and successfully engage in simple, routine, repetitive tasks (SRRTs).

Unfortunately, RFC forms completed by DDS doctors are rarely of any benefit to claimants. At DDS, RFC forms are usually used to facilitate denials significantly more often than approvals. That's why it's important to get your treating doctor to fill out an RFC form for you.

RFC Forms Completed by Your Treating Doctor

Residual functional capacity forms completed by your treating doctor can be extremely helpful to you at the time of your hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Before the hearing, you can submit an RFC form that has been completed by your personal physician, or "treating physician," rather than a DDS medical or psychological consultant.

Social Security often gives substantial weight to the opinion of a disability claimant's treating physician. The treating physician has a physician-patient relationship with first-hand knowledge of a claimant's medical condition and prognosis and is often in a better and more informed position to provide information on a claimant's limitations.

If you submit the opinion of your treating physician with a comprehensive RFC form that explains why a claimant's various medical problems cause various physical and mental limitations, and these problems and limitations are consistent with a claimant's medical evidence and other evidence in the file, Social Security should give a good deal of weight to that opinion.

Why Doctors' RFC Forms Are Better Than Medical Records

Some claimants may think to themselves: "Well, if the medical evidence is strong anyway, why should I need an RFC filled out by my doctor, or psychologist, or psychiatrist?" Medical records rarely make connections between the patient's symptoms and the patient's limitations and abilities. And judges are not doctors who can easily translate the symptoms and test results of a medical record into how severe a claimant's functional limitations are.

Reasons to Ask Your Doctor to Fill Out an RFC Form

In a nutshell:

  • A doctor's RFC form allows a claimant to present a professional interpretation of the medical evidence, as opposed to simply presenting the medical evidence.
  • A doctor's RFC form is superior to a short statement or letter written on behalf of a claimant by a doctor stating that the claimant cannot work. (Such letters rarely, if ever, help to win a case.)
  • A doctor's RFC form can be instrumental in winning a disability case by allowing a doctor to specifically comment on a claimant's limitations (in strength, range of motion, mobility, and so on).
  • A doctor's RFC form makes an administrative law judge's job easier.

To obtain a free residual functional capacity form that may assist you in winning your claim, visit our RFC (Residual Functional Capacity) Form page.

Which Doctor Should Complete an RFC Form?

An RFC form can be extremely helpful to your claim, but if it's not completed by the right doctor, it could also be harmful to your claim. Make sure your forms are completed by your primary doctor or a specialist you've been seeing for a while, rather than a doctor you've only had a few appointments with. A doctor who doesn't know you well may not know the full extent of your conditions.

It's also important to make sure the forms go to the correct doctor—for example, don't take a physical functional capacity form to your psychiatrist, because your psychiatrist doesn't provide treatment for your physical conditions.

How Do I Get My Doctor to Fill Out an RFC Form?

Some medical clinics and hospitals have a "no forms" policy, so it might be difficult to get your doctor to complete an RFC form on your behalf. Here are several ways to approach a request for your doctor to complete forms:

  • Mail/fax. The simplest way to send a form is to mail or fax the form to your doctor. But this method isn't usually the most effective because the forms can easily get ignored or lost in the shuffle.
  • Bring the form to an appointment for your condition. You can try to bring an RFC form with you to one of your appointments and ask that your doctor complete it. Sometimes doctors will complete the form in the clinic while you're with them. However, some doctors will simply ask you to fill out the answers to the questions on the form and sign their name. This method isn't always as persuasive to a judge when evaluating your claim, because the doctor doesn't reference specific aspects of your medical records to support the limitations on the form.
  • Request a special appointment. The best way to make sure your forms are completed accurately is to schedule an appointment with your doctor with the sole intention of completing an RFC form. Doctors prefer this method because it ensures that the doctor has enough time to review your medical history and complete the form in its entirety.

What If I Have Trouble Getting My Doctor to Complete an RFC Form?

A disability advocate or lawyer can help facilitate getting your doctor to complete an RFC form on your behalf. An advocate or lawyer will determine which of your doctors is in a better position to provide an opinion about your physical or mental limitations and will help ensure the forms get completed and submitted for Social Security to review.

For more information about hiring a disability advocate or lawyer, please see our article about how to find a disability lawyer, attorney, or representative.

Updated January 18, 2022

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