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If you’re eligible for veterans disability benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, don’t let the complicated process keep you from getting the disability compensation you need and deserve. While it’s true that the VA claim process can be complex, with a little advance research and some patience, you can certainly navigate it successfully. If you know which common mistakes to avoid, that just puts you on even better footing as you get started.
9 Common Mistakes in VA Disability Claims
- Providing incomplete information
- Not getting a medical opinion
- Failing to claim secondary conditions
- Avoiding mental health claims
- Not appealing
- Giving up
- Going it alone
- Falling for VA Pension Benefit Scams
You may have heard horror stories about lengthy applications, delayed processes, and hours of frustration when it comes to applying for veteran’s disability claims – but those stories don’t represent everyone’s experience. It is possible if you’re well-armed with information at the beginning – to smoothly navigate the whole process with minimal frustration. A good place to start is by avoiding some of the most common pitfalls associated with VA disability claims.
This one’s plain and simple: don’t hesitate to file your VA disability claim – delaying can potentially cost you tremendous amounts of money. You’ll never receive VA benefits if you don’t apply for them. It’s common for veterans to procrastinate because they’re unsure if they qualify or they want to wait to see if symptoms improve, or a whole host of other reasons. It’s best to file your claim as quickly as possible so that you can begin receiving your benefits.
Make note that there’s no statute of limitations when it comes to filing a veterans disability claim, but waiting rarely works in your favor in this case. If you do receive a compensation award, whether in your original application or through the appeals process, your benefits will be paid retroactively, starting at the date of your original claim.
Along with initial procrastination, some veterans believe that as long as they’re not in too much pain or too hampered by their condition, they should wait until they have more trouble before applying for benefits. But that can backfire on you if your condition worsens suddenly. If you apply early, even if you get as low as a 0 percent rating on a condition, you can receive VA benefits for that condition if it worsens later in life. If you apply early, even if you’re not sure you need benefits, you’ll probably be glad you did.
2. Providing Incomplete Information
The VA disability claim process isn’t easy – there’s a heavy burden of proof upon you to prove several things: that you are eligible for VA disability benefits, that you have a current disability, that something that happened to you while in service is the cause of that disability, and that your condition is considered medically severe enough to merit VA benefits.
Getting your application approved isn’t as simple as filling out a form and submitting it, and it’s nothing to take lightly or approach casually. You’ll need medical documentation, as well as statements from friends, family, and co-workers attesting to how your condition affects your everyday life, just to start.
You’ll have to do some legwork to gather and submit the right kinds of documentation. For many applicants, this is very difficult, especially on the first go-round, but incomplete documentation is a very common reason for first-time applications to be denied. You should invest the time and effort to collect and submit the kind of documentation that will help your claim be approved quickly.
You can even take things a step further and make sure your documentation is well-organized and easy for a VA examiner to understand. It’s not enough just to throw hundreds of pages of documentation at the people reviewing your claim – make it easy for them to follow your narrative and see that your claim is legitimate.
3. Not Getting a Medical Opinion
VA officials will rely heavily on medical diagnosis and opinion to determine whether you are eligible to receive VA disability benefits. They can’t simply take your word for it – or the word of anyone who isn’t a medical professional. Failing to provide all the information VA officials need to make its decision is a key reason many claims are denied at first application.
If you can provide a written statement from your physician that links your disability to your time in service, that is an extremely helpful piece of documentation – both for those making the decision and for your case. It can make a huge difference in the success of your claim. You must be able to show medical evidence demonstrating the details and medical treatment for the condition in question – failing to include a medical diagnosis linking your condition to your time of active duty or other military service is almost certain to result in a denied claim.
A related common mistake is to diagnose yourself, listing what you believe your condition to be rather than simply listing your symptoms. If you provide a complete list of symptoms, VA officials will be obligated to follow up on each of them – and if it turns out that you have multiple conditions, you’ll receive a disability rating for each one of them. These ratings then are ultimately combined into your overall disability rating.
4. Failing to Claim Secondary Conditions
Many veterans applying for VA disability benefits don’t realize that they also are eligible for VA benefits related to secondary conditions, even pre-existing ones that exist outside of their service-connected disability. But many times, this is exactly the case. It’s not uncommon for a service-related disability to amplify an existing health condition or even to lead to the development of a new additional disability. Even if secondary disabilities don’t develop until years later, there’s still a chance you might be eligible for related VA disability compensation.
5. Avoiding Mental Health Claims
Sometimes veterans hesitate to submit claims for mental health conditions, including the highly publicized post-traumatic stress disorder. While PTSD rightly gets a lot of attention and the VA has recently relaxed its criteria for proving PTSD, it isn’t the only mental health condition common among veterans. Others include anxiety, sleep disorders, amnesia, depression, and panic attacks, just to name a few. Depending on the level of impairment the condition causes, especially when it comes to social and occupational effects, mental health conditions are rated for compensation exactly like physical ones, so don’t leave them out.
6. Not Filing an Appeal
Just because a benefits claim is denied at first review doesn’t mean it’s over. Don’t be swayed by thoughts of a long and arduous appeals process – even if the process turns out to be lengthy and complex, it will be worth it when your claim is finally approved. Look carefully at the reasons for the claim being denied and then prepare carefully for your appeal. Many claims are denied on their first attempt, but end up being approved once clarifying information is supplied. At this point in the process, you may consider engaging an attorney specializing in VA disability benefits claims to help you organize your appeal.
7. Giving Up
Knowing that the VA disability claims process is a marathon, not a sprint, going in can help keep you from giving up. The process can be long and certainly try your patience, but it will pay off if you’re eligible and you keep pursuing your claim. It’s worth it – if you meet the VA’s requirements for VA disability benefits, then keep going. You’re entitled to that compensation and you can eventually get them – it just might take longer than you originally expected.
8. Going it Alone
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when it comes to making your way through the VA’s complicated system. Whether that help comes from reaching out to a veteran’s organization or hiring a private lawyer, or just getting friends, especially other veterans, to weigh in on how you’re going through the process, you can get tremendous benefit from having an outside perspective on how best to navigate your benefits claim. You should also be able to count on your primary physician and any other members of your health care team – plus your veterans service officer, who should be your main point of contact within the VA as your benefits claim goes through the review process.
9. Falling for VA Pension Benefit Scams
Learn how to spot common pension benefit scams and protect your pension from shady professionals who claim they are “helping” you. War-time veterans and their survivors who are in financial need may qualify for Veterans’ Affairs pension benefits. While these funds are intended for those who have sacrificed for our country, sadly, some scammers see a pot of money and devise ways to “help” that will cost you more money.
These offers may sound like a good deal but they rarely are. Their pitches are often based on half-truths, so they sound realistic – but they don’t tell you the whole story and they don’t warn you about long-term consequences. The Federal Trade Commission warns veterans that many of these scammers are attorneys or insurance agents who hold seminars that appear legitimate. Sometimes these seminars are held in assisted living facilities, or advertised in the newspaper.
They will make claims like:
“We’ll show you – for free – how to qualify for your benefits and stay in your home.”
“We guarantee you’ll get your Aid and Attendance pension.”
Their guarantees can sound reassuring, but if they’re charging you money, there’s something in it for them. Be sure to know what you’re qualified for, and you shouldn’t have to give up any of your money to apply and receive a pension that you’ve earned with your service.
Know What You’re Eligible to Claim
The first step is to know what benefits you’re eligible to receive. Veterans over 65 who have low income may qualify for pension benefits, for themselves or their survivors. Additional benefits may be paid for vets or surviving spouses who require daily assistance, or who are housebound. Veterans who have a service-connected disability may qualify for veterans’ disability benefits.
You can apply for pension benefits online with the VA’s online benefits portal or contact your VA Regional Office. There is no application fee and no charge for the forms. All of these resources are free. There is no fee to apply for your benefits, and in fact, there is a law prohibiting any agent or attorney from charging you to file an application for benefits. There are two important distinctions: First, an attorney can charge a fee to advise you about which benefits you’re eligible for, but once you decide to file, they can’t bill you any further during the initial filing process. Second, an attorney can charge fees to help you appeal if your claim has been denied.
Any professional who helps you with your claim must be accredited by the VA. You can look online at the VA website to see if someone is accredited. The VA accredits three types of professionals to help you complete and file pension claims, so be sure you’re talking to one of these:
- Representatives from VA-recognized Veterans Service Organizations
- Independent claims agents
- Private attorneys
Beware of offers to “help” you qualify for benefits by moving around your assets. While anyone would want to maximize their chances to qualify, within legal limits, these offers can contain several traps. First, you may not actually qualify and may later be required to repay the benefits paid. Second, in shifting assets around to qualify for veterans’ pension you might then be ineligible for Medicaid benefits.
These scammers often try to convince you they can “help” you qualify for supplemental Aid and Attendance benefits by transferring your assets to a trust. All of these “deals” contain the same unintended adverse effects for you; meanwhile, the scammers gouge you with fees. Experts advise that you be fully informed of the long-term consequences of any offer and consult a trusted VA accredited financial adviser before agreeing to anything,
After You Qualify for Benefits
Once you qualify to receive benefit payments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) also warns veterans to be wary of any professional who tries to market financial products around your pension benefits, like trusts or annuities. Annuities for older veterans can create problems, such as tying up your funds and leaving you without access if you need without having to pay a high penalty.
Another scam is to offer you a lump sum payment now in exchange for your future monthly disability or pension benefits. Assigning your benefits is prohibited by law, but scammers find ways to structure the swap to make it look legal. Even if they come up with a legal scheme, a swap will generally not be a good deal. The CFPB offers this scenario to consider: Say you receive $2,744 in monthly benefits, and a company offers you a $73,000 lump sum payment now in exchange for your future benefits for 10 years. At the end of 10 years, those benefits added up to a staggering $256,293, which is a 45% interest rate.
Typically, these schemes are sold on a promise to benefit you, but in all cases, you will probably end up with less than you would have. The CFPB recommends that if you need emergency funds talk to a trusted financial expert who can give you objective advice.
Should I Hire a VA Disability Lawyer?
Whether to hire a lawyer specializing in veteran compensation is always a personal choice that you should make based on the best information you have at hand. At the end of the day, you’ll want to hire a veterans disability attorney if you believe that lawyer can get better results for you than you’ve been able to get for yourself. So, you can choose to wait until after you’ve heard an initial decision before you decide whether you need legal assistance. With the VA’s initial decision will come either celebration because you’ve been approved at an appropriate level of benefit, or the beginning of the appeals process.
Working with a veteran’s disability attorney may help reduce waiting time for the results of your appeal and may help your chances for success if your case is particularly challenging. If you do decide to hire a lawyer, you must choose one who is VA-accredited. Make sure also to read your contract thoroughly – don’t sign it until you feel comfortable with all details. As part of the process, try to talk to two or three different VA lawyers before choosing the one you feel is right for you.
Your veterans disability lawyer should be experienced when it comes to the sometimes circuitous process of getting a successful VA disability claim through the process.
And your lawyer should be prepared to see your claim through to the bitter end without charging you a penny until the process is complete and you have a final decision that you’re willing to accept. Also, keep in mind that pro bono legal assistance is often available to veterans through organizations like the National Veterans Legal Services Program.
VA Disability Claim – How to Avoid Common Mistakes
While the process of filing for VA disability benefits can be confusing, it isn’t impossible to navigate with success. Now that you know some of the most common mistakes associated with filing your benefits claim, you can avoid making those mistakes from the very beginning.
While that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your claim will be approved on the first go, it does mean you’re likely to avoid some unnecessary headaches and irritation with the process as you make your way through to a successful claim.