Social Security awards benefits to people who can't work full-time, so when you apply for disability, the agency needs to know what you're still able to do—after taking your limitations into account—in order to decide whether you can work. The process of determining what you can and can't do despite your disability is called making a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment.
Your RFC is a short paragraph containing a set of restrictions that reflect the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment. Assessing your RFC is a key part of your Social Security disability determination.
Claims examiners and administrative law judges rely mainly on your medical records when determining your residual functional capacity. If you're receiving treatment for a medical condition that causes functional limitations, those limitations must be included in your RFC.
When you first apply for disability benefits, your RFC will be decided by a claims examiner who works for Disability Determination Services (DDS). DDS is a state agency that helps the Social Security Administration, a federal agency, process disability applications ("claims").
If your disability claim is at the hearing level, an administrative law judge who works directly for Social Security will conduct your RFC assessment. Judges may disagree with the DDS claims examiner's assessment of your RFC, which can work in your favor.
Ultimately, Social Security claims examiners and judges determine your residual functional capacity. But because your RFC must contain restrictions that are documented by your medical records, they often need help from doctors who work for Social Security and who can provide insight into how your condition limits your functionality. Doctors who help claims examiners determine your RFC are called medical consultants, while doctors who testify at a disability hearing are called medical experts.
Medical consultants and experts review your doctor's notes and other medical documentation to determine what activities you're capable of doing without undue pain or stress. Based on your restrictions, they'll advise the judge or examiner by recommending an RFC that excludes any activities that you aren't expected to perform at a job.
An important component of your residual functional capacity is what Social Security calls your exertional level. Your exertional level consists of limitations on how long you can stand for and how much weight you can lift. Claimants with physical impairments will almost always be restricted to a specific exertional level in their RFC.
Here are the various exertional levels that could appear in your RFC:
For instance, if your doctor has restricted you to walking and standing no more than two hours per day, your RFC will be for sedentary work.
Non-exertional restrictions aren't strength-related, but still affect your ability to work. Examples include not being able to stoop, use your fingers, or remember instructions. If your condition causes you to have any non-exertional restrictions, your RFC will contain limitations on how long you can perform the activity for. Length of time is broken into five categories:
If you're applying for disability based solely on a mental health disorder, your RFC will contain only non-exertional restrictions. For more information, see our article about mental residual functioning in a disability claim.
Here's an example of a typical RFC assessment for a claimant alleging disability due to a combination of physical and mental impairments:
Your RFC is useful because it translates any medical restrictions from your condition into terms an employer would understand. An average employer might not know how peripheral neuropathy affects your ability to work, but they'll take notice if you're regularly dropping small objects due to numbness in your hands or elevating your legs to reduce pain in your feet.
Vocational experts help Social Security determine if employers would consider somebody with your RFC capable or incapable of performing any jobs you've done before, as well as any other jobs in the U.S. If you can't return to your past work and no other jobs exist "in significant numbers" that you can do with your RFC, Social Security will find that you're disabled.
Social Security first uses your residual functional capacity to determine if you can still do any of your past jobs. The agency reviews your work history for the past 15 years and compares the physical and mental demands of your past work with the current limitations in your RFC.
For example, if you've only done sedentary sit-down jobs and your current RFC is for sedentary work (or higher), Social Security is going to assume that you'd be able to return to your past work (unless your RFC contains non-exertional restrictions like an inability to remember instructions).
But if your past jobs were more labor intensive—such as an auto mechanic or mail carrier—and you're limited to sedentary work, the agency won't expect you to return to your former line of work.
Once Social Security decides that you can't do your prior jobs, the agency then needs to determine whether you'd be able to learn another job with your current RFC, taking into consideration factors such as your age, education, and any skills you learned at your past work. Generally, claimants over the age of 50 have an easier time showing that they can't switch jobs, while claimants younger than 50 need to show that they aren't able to work at even the simplest, least physically demanding jobs full-time.
For more information, see our series of articles on the medical-vocational grid rules, organized by age and RFC level.
It can be helpful to ask your doctor to write up a "treating source statement" for Social Security. When determining your RFC, Social Security gives special consideration to opinions from doctors who've seen you regularly and are familiar with your ongoing health issues. You can help increase your chances of a successful claim by getting your doctors to complete a comprehensive RFC form explaining the limitations you have and how they're caused by your medical conditions.
Unfortunately, doctors can be reluctant to complete forms for a variety of reasons, including time constraints and clinic policy. Consider hiring an experienced disability attorney to help get your doctor to complete an RFC form on your behalf. Your lawyer can assist you by:
For more information, see our article on how a disability attorney or advocate will handle your Social Security claim.
Updated April 27, 2023