Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Where to start in VA disability compensation

First, are you eligible?

A veteran must have two years of active duty under her belt as of a 1981 service entry.

You must have a disability that the VA determines is service-connected on active duty, or was made worse by active military service. You must also have a discharge that the VA determines was under other than dishonorable conditions. For example, you are unlikely to qualify for disability compensation if you have a bad conduct discharge. 
The disability compensation conditions are less strict than eligibility for some other benefits such as a VA pension or VA home loans. In both cases, you must have served on active duty during a wartime period such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the Gulf Wars.

You have three basic options when you start a claim. You can represent yourself “pro se” or give your Power of Attorney (POA) to a Veterans Service Organization or an attorney. 

Let's look at the pros and cons of each. 

Pro Se

1, You have complete control of your claim. If you have to appeal to the Board of Veteran Appeals (BVA) you get special consideration because you do not have professional representation. You can also ask the BVA for a reconsideration of its ruling, something a veteran service organization or attorney cannot do.

You will be able to go to the VA's Veteran Center that has many experienced counselors who can access most VA claims databases.

In addition, you can usually see the same VA counselor as the claim progresses. The Veterans Center is open 5 -days a week and doesn't close during local or national VA conventions or similar events.

You will have to do all of your own research and file the claim using the On-line VONAPP or the VA paper Form 21-526. You will also have to coordinate the completion of Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQ) with your physicians and clinicians to document your claim.

You will have to set up a file system for incoming VA letters and outgoing claims documents. You wail need access the Internet, a PC and a printer, preferably a laser multifunction printer. You will need software that is able to edit postscript document format (PDF) documents such as Adobe Acrobat.


An attorney can probably provide the best help up front on a claim. If an attorney takes your case, it is a good sign that your case has merit. The attorneys have paralegals who will help you with paperwork and answer questions by phone. You can expect a higher level of service with an attorney.

Most attorneys will also be able to refer you to doctors who understand the VA's documentation requirements and know how to properly complete a DBQ. The VA Regional Office is likely to take attorney representation more seriously than a claim that is represented pro se or by a veterans organization.

The attorney will receive 20 per cent of any retroactive pay that you receive. However, this does not apply to monthly contrast, other private practice attorneys take about 1/3 of a settlement plus administrative costs.

Most veteran attorneys do not provide this services to become wealthy Most have been veterans and understand the need for these legal services to vets.

Veteran Service Organizations

Last but not least are the service organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Veterans (AMVETS). There are many others. Most of the states also have state level veteran service officers(VSO).

These veteran organizations usually require POA. However, this does not restrict you from talking to the counselors in the Veteran Center, On the other hand, an attorney will probably want all conservations and documentation to go through the attorney's office.

The exception of the state service organization who usually will not ask for POA. Have found most service organizations to be the least effective way to staff a claim. Many of these offices have limited hours and may be open only 4-days a week. During a VA conventions the entire office may close. One office rotated its VSOs every 90-days and a vet could have 20 different VSOs or more during the life cycle of a claim.

Service organizations are unlikely to help you write or review claim documentation. Service orgs will represent you during a local BVA hearing, but many VSOs lack legal training. This is true in FL. However, in NY a VSO must have legal training.

The state VSOs are a different animal. Many will help you without requiring POA.Most are unlikely to represent you during a BVA hearing.

So, if you are representing yourself pro se, you can still get advice from both counselors in the vet center and from state level VSOs. In the case of the writer, this situation worked best, but it is not for everyone.

Is Pro Se is for me?

Fist of all can you or your significant other write well? Can you distinguish facts from opinion? How good is your grammar and reading comprehension? 

The BVA has strict rules on evidence. The BVA will throw out any opinion other than expert that you try to present as fact. 

Try some of these tests before you dive into pro se.  Check out the following grammar and reading comprehension tests and your ability to distinguish fact from opinion.

If you are having difficulty with these tests, suggest you engage and attorney. Regardless of whether you start the claim with an attorney, you will probably eventually need one if you appeal to the BVA, which provides legal administrative hearings.


VA Form 21-526

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