What Is Your Residual Functional Capacity?

As part of its disability determination, Social Security may assess your RFC, which represents the work that you can do despite the limitations caused by your impairment.

By , Attorney · UC Davis School of Law

Sometimes the Social Security Administration (SSA) can make a disability determination on the basis of medical factors alone (for instance, you'll automatically get benefits if your kidney disease requires daily hemodialysis). But if your impairment doesn't meet (or "equal") the criteria of any impairment in Social Security's Listing of Impairments, the SSA will assess your functional limitations and restrictions—that is, what you can and can't do—to see if you're disabled.

Social Security will reach this step of the five-step disability evaluation process only if you aren't doing what the agency considers "substantial gainful activity."

What's Your Residual Functionality?

Your residual functionality is your remaining ability to do work-related physical and mental activities. Social Security officially calls it your "residual functional capacity" (RFC). Your RFC represents the most that you can do despite the limitations caused by your impairment.

The SSA will assess your medical condition and give you an RFC if you have a severe impairment. (If Social Security deems your impairment non-severe, the agency will just deny your disability application without giving you an RFC.)

If you have more than one impairment, Social Security will consider all of the limitations or restrictions resulting from all of your impairments (including severe and nonsevere impairments) in assessing your RFC.

Social Security will base its assessment of your RFC on all of the relevant medical evidence in your case record. The SSA will look at the following to create your RFC:

In assessing your RFC, Social Security must address both your exertional and nonexertional limitations or restrictions.

What's Your Exertional Capacity?

Your exertional capacity refers to your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, push, and pull. These are known as the seven strength demands. Social Security's evaluation process addresses these demands of work by classifying jobs as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.

For sedentary work, you can lift no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally carry or lift objects such as lightweight tools and file folders. While sedentary jobs mostly involve sitting, some walking and standing can be required occasionally to carry out job duties. To perform the full range of sedentary work, you should be able to sit for about 6 hours of an 8-hour workday and walk and stand up to 2 hours of an 8-hour workday.

For light work, you can lift no more than 20 pounds at a time and you can frequently carry or lift objects weighing less than 10 pounds. In general, light work involves walking or standing for about 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. However, a job that involves sitting most of the time can still be considered light work if it involves some pushing and pulling of hand or foot controls, since such activity requires more exertion than sedentary work. Examples of such jobs include a sewing machine operator and a medical transcriptionist.

For medium work, you can lift no more than 50 pounds at a time and frequently carry or lift objects weighing up to only 25 pounds. Medium work requires that you can walk or stand for about 6 hours of an 8-hour workday.

For heavy work, you can lift no more than 100 pounds at a time and frequently carry or lift objects weighing up to only 50 pounds.

For very heavy work, you can lift more than 100 pounds at a time and frequently carry or lift objects weighing 50 pounds or more.

What's Your Nonexertional Capacity?

Your nonexertional capacity refers to your ability to perform physical activities other than the seven strength demands, as well as your mental abilities. Nonexertional limitations or restrictions can be:

  • postural (stooping, bending, climbing)
  • manipulative (handling, reaching, fine finger movements)
  • communicative (speaking or hearing), or
  • visual.

Additionally, nonexertional capacity can include your ability to tolerate environmental factors such as dust or fumes, noise, or temperature extremes.

Also included in your nonexertional capacity is your ability to perform work-related mental activities. Mental abilities required at the workplace can include your ability to:

  • comprehend and remember instructions (and carry them out)
  • keep up your pace and compete tasks
  • interact properly with supervisors and co-workers
  • deal with changes in your work routine, and
  • be able to exercise judgment in making decisions at work.

If you have a mental impairment, your RFC assessment will determine whether you can do unskilled work, semi-skilled work, or skilled work.

How Social Security Uses Your RFC

Once Social Security has assessed your RFC, the agency will use the assessment to determine if you can perform your past job. Social Security will compare your RFC with the physical and mental demands of your past relevant work, looking at the work that you've done in the past 15 years (only at jobs that lasted long enough for you to learn to do it).

For example, say your physical RFC allows you to perform sedentary work and you have no mental limitations. If you held a job within the past 15 years as a receptionist, Social Security will probably determine that you can return to your job as a receptionist, and you won't be disabled. However, if your past jobs all required light exertion and you've been given a sedentary RFC, Social Security will determine that you can't perform any of them, and the disability evaluation will continue to see if you can perform other jobs.

Social Security will then evaluate whether you can adjust to doing other jobs by considering "vocational" factors such as your age, education, and work experience, in combination with your RFC.

If Social Security determines that you can do other jobs (and such jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy), then you will be found "not disabled." However, if the SSA finds that your age, RFC, and other vocational factors prevent you from being able to do other jobs, you could be found "disabled" and awarded disability benefits through what's called a "medical-vocational allowance."

Using the RFC Forms

Given the importance of your RFC assessment, you should ask your doctor to complete an RFC assessment form and you should submit it with your application for disability benefits. Contact your local Social Security office to obtain copies of the physical RFC form and the mental RFC form. You can also call the SSA at (800) 772-1213.

If your doctor isn't willing to fill out an RFC form, see our article on filing for disability without a doctor's support.

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