Tips for Successful VA Compensation Claims
Welcome to Vetus Legal LLC! I'm Todd Wesche.
You're here because you are looking for more information on how to maximize your monthly, federal tax-free, cash disability compensation benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that you might be entitled to.
Congratulations! You took the next step to improve your personal and financial future. Many veterans don't. But what's important is that you did.
I'm sure you have many questions. Most veterans do. The VA system has many great people working to help veterans. Unfortunately, the system that Congress created is complicated and is not easy to navigate.
I've made a career helping U.S. military veterans, like you, navigate it successfully.
Why Seek VA Disability Compensation Benefits?
After all, you've probably heard horror stories about how veterans like you have been treated unfairly, felt like VA didn't believe them, or the benefits VA granted were far less than what they felt they deserved.
It may be true. It happens. It doesn't have to happen to you!
You've likely already earned these benefits if
you're disabled because of your military service.
You just need to claim them.
Imagine how much better your life could be with even just $150 cash in your pocket every month. What could you do with that $1,800 every year?
Now, imagine how much better your life could be (if VA awards you a 100% disability rating) with $3,400 cash in your pocket every month? That's more than $40,000 every year – federal tax free!
That's money you can use any way you want.
And, once you are rated at 30% disabled or higher, VA pays you additional cash compensation for your qualified dependents, such as a spouse and certain children.
Plus, you could become entitled to other benefits from federal or state governments that you may not yet be receiving – like free VA healthcare for some or all of your medical or psychological problems, VA home loan guarantees, VA education benefits for your dependents, or state-level property tax cuts or exemptions. Those benefits can save you money too.
When you die (and we all do), if your death was caused or hastened by a military-caused disability or if you were rated by VA as 100% disabled for 10 years or longer at the time of your death, then your dependent survivors could qualify for VA compensation payments directly to them. You could help take care of them from the great beyond!
These are just a few of the benefits you could receive.
But you must file the claim first.
I'll Do It! What's Next?
Below are some key things that you, or any veteran, can do to increase the chances of VA granting all of the disability compensation benefits that you may be entitled to. Let's dive into the tips!
(READ ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM FOR A BONUS TIP!)
#1 – Start the Process by Filing an “Intent to File a Claim” Form
To start the process, you need to start the process. This seems obvious. But many veterans never start.
They think they need to have everything figured out before they start. That's not true!
VA allows veterans to start the claim process before they know what claims they are going to make.
To start the process, you can file VA's “Intent to File a Claim” form (VA Form 21-0966). By filing that form, you're just telling VA that you will file a claim for compensation, not that you're ready to do so now.
Once VA receives the completed form, it will hold your place in line. You will have one year from that date to finish figuring out which disabilities you want to list on the claim forms.
#2 – Determine What Disabilities You Have that Could Be Related to Military Service
After you've filed the Intent to File a Claim, you can start figuring out what conditions, disabilities, or symptoms you currently suffer that you think may have been caused by your military service.
Other than filing the claim, this may be the most important thing you can do.
If you don't list your disability on the claim, VA can't give you benefits for it!
Imagine you've been injured and you're lying in a bed waiting for the doctors to finish figuring out what's wrong with you. Imagine they have a fancy machine that has a blue laser that scans your body looking for anything that is wrong with you.
This is what you need to do next.
Start looking at your own body as if you're using that blue laser to identify everything about your body that doesn't work the way it is supposed to.
Externally (skin, hair), internally (muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood), emotionally, cognitively (brain function), and your senses (hearing, sight, taste, smell, touch). From the top of your head (including hair) to the bottoms of your feet – and everything in between.
Take your time. Do it slowly. Be honest. Nothing is off limits. It's your body. You know it best.
When you find something, write it down – but do not try to figure out if it is related to your military service yet.
It may be helpful to ask your friends and family to tell you things they've seen that don't work properly.
Then, go back over that list and think about whether that disability was caused by something that happened to you during your military service. This could be something like –
- A direct injury
- A toxic exposure
- Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event
Next, go back over that list again and think about whether any condition or disability you just identified as being caused by your military service may have caused or worsened another disability. This could be something like –
- Diabetes mellitus causing diabetic neuropathy
- A weak knee causing injury to the opposite knee
- A low back injury causing a sedentary lifestyle that then causes obesity that causes sleep apnea
This last example is important. As long as you can draw a straight, unbroken line between service, a disability, and then another disability, the last disability can be related to your military service.
Last, if there are any conditions left on the list, consider whether there is no possible way that the condition is related to your military service. If so, cross them off. This could be something like –
- A shoulder injury while playing high school varsity football that was not made worse during service.
- Injuries from a post-service automobile accident caused by another driver.
- A post-service industrial or work-related chemical exposure.
If there is any doubt, leave the disability on the list and let VA figure it out.
Whatever is left on this list could be a disability or condition you list on your application for VA disability compensation.
#3 – Don't “Suck It Up, Buttercup”: Assess Your Symptoms
Veterans were often told to “suck it up, buttercup” when they were hurt or injured during military service. And they don't want to admit how bad things are.
But, the VA claim process is the best time to be completely honest and candid about how bad things really are.
There's a great reason for this: VA can only compensate you for the effects of your disabilities if it knows what those effects are. If you don't tell VA about the symptoms, or if you don't describe how frequently they occur, how severe they are, and long they last, VA can't properly assess the degree that the symptoms of your conditions disable you.
That means that, even if VA grants the claim, it may not pay you all the money you're entitled to.
For this reason, you will want to ensure that you describe to as best you can all the symptom of your conditions and how they affect you.
During the "blue line scan," you wrote down what you're suffering from. Now, go back for each symptom and write down –
- How often the symptoms occur or recur (daily, weekly, every few days, monthly, etc.)
- How severe the symptoms are (pain on a scale of 1 to 10, how they make you feel emotionally, limitations of proper functionality, etc.)
- How long the systems last at that severity (minutes, hours, days, weeks, all the time, etc.)
#4 – Get Medical Treatment for the Disabilities and Symptoms
If you can, you should get medical treatment for your conditions. This is important because you are documenting outside of the claim process that you have problems and you're seeking treatment for them.
By being open and candid with your treating medical professional, you can get them to record and assess your symptoms, test for possible causes, and provide appropriate treatment.
When talking to your doctor, it will be helpful to review the frequency, severity, and duration of the symptoms that you wrote down in #3 above.
All this information will be important in proving the existence and severity of your disability. And once written down, it can be provided to VA to help prove your claim.
#5 – Use the Correct Claim Forms
Once you have your list of disabilities, conditions, and symptoms that you want to use as the basis of your claim for disability compensation, you must ensure that you file the claims on the proper forms.
You need to think a little differently here about what a “claim” is. We've talked about the claim as one for disability compensation.
But now, you need to think of each disability, condition, or symptom as a separate claim.
There are two key rules you must follow to ensure that the claims are filed on the proper forms.
#1: If you have never filed a claim for compensation for a particular disability, condition, or symptom, you must file the claim on VA's "Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits" (VA Form 21-526EZ).
#2: If you have filed a claim for compensation for a particular disability, regardless of whether VA granted it or denied it, you must file the claim on VA's "Decision Review Request: Supplemental Claim" (VA Form 20-0995).
(Note: If you received a decision from VA less than a year ago, you have other decision review options also. VA likely provided those options with the decision.)
#6 – Describe the Disabilities Generically on the Claim Forms
When listing the conditions on the claim forms, describe them the same way you would describe them to someone in 5th grade. Make it simple.
For example, you can say “low back pain” or "ringing in my ears” or “anxiety and depression.”
Do your best to avoid describing your condition using medical terminology unless a doctor has told you that specific diagnosis.
Particularly on the VA Form 21-526EZ, you should also state whether you think the claimed disability is directly caused by service (direct service connection) or caused by another, primary disability that itself was caused by service (secondary service connection) and, if so, what that primary disability is.
#7 - File the Claim Forms
After you've completed the forms, file them with VA! Follow the instructions on the forms carefully and file them as directed by VA.
Remember, VA must receive your claim forms within one year of the date it received your Intent to File a Claim. If you miss this deadline, VA will accept the claim, but you will lose your place in line and will start at the end again.
If you mail the forms to VA, you can avoid potential problems later on by having the U.S. Postal Service hand-stamp a postmark on the envelope. If the forms are lost in the mail and eventually get delivered to VA, and if the postmark is prior to that one year expiration, VA can still deem the claim as having been received on the date of the postmark. (Do not use FedEx, UPS, or any non-USPS delivery service if you are sending the forms by mail because, if the forms arrive at VA after the one-year period expires even if they were sent before it expired, VA won't be required to give you the date of its receipt of your Intent to File a Claim for any awards of benefits to you.)
Be Careful! If you file claims on both the 21-526EZ and 20-0995 forms, make sure you file both forms on the same day. If you do not, VA will give you the benefit of your Intent to File a Claim form for the first claim it receives but not the second.
#8 - BONUS TIP: File a Claim for Unemployability Benefits with Your Other Claim Forms If You Have Difficulties Getting a Job or Keeping a Job Because of the Effects of Your Military Disabilities
There is a special way to obtain monthly cash compensation payments at the 100% disability rate even if you are not rated as 100% disabled by VA!
You read that correctly! VA can pay you at the 100% rate even if your disabilities are rated as 60%, 70%, 80%, or 90% disabling.
VA calls it a "total disability rating based on individual unemployability" (also called "IU" or "TDIU").
You do not need to be unemployed for VA to grant this benefit. VA can, and does, award it to people who are working full time under certain circumstances.
Even if you are not sure if you would qualify, but it is difficult or impossible for you to get a job or keep a job due to your military-caused disabilities, you might qualify. As such, you should complete and submit VA's "Veteran's Application for Increased Compensation Based on Unemployability" (VA Form 21-8940) with your other claims.