If you are a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, and you have a disability connected to your active service, you are likely eligible for veterans disability benefits.
What Are Veterans Disability Benefits?
Veterans disability benefits are monetary compensation, paid on a monthly basis, to those with illnesses or diseases from active duty. The payments are not subject to state or federal income tax.
The dollar amount of the benefits is based on the degree of disability the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determines the veteran to have suffered (ranging from 10% to 100% disabled, in increments of 10 percent). More serious injuries warrant higher monetary compensation. Benefits may also include traveling expenses for medical treatment or rehabilitation. Veterans who are low-income, over the age of 65, and suffer permanent and total disability may also qualify for veterans disability pension benefits.
Who Qualifies for Veterans Disability Benefits?
In order to qualify for veterans disability benefits, certain criteria must be met. First, the veteran must currently have a medically diagnosed disease or disability. Second, there must have been an incident during active military, naval, or air service. Third, the veteran must prove a causal connection – that is, the disability is “service-connected” between the military service and the current injury or disease.
Veterans will not qualify for disability benefits if the injury or disease was a result of the veteran's misconduct, if the veteran was dishonorably discharged from service, if the injury occurred while the service member was avoiding duty (deserting or absenting himself or herself without leave), or if the injury occurred while in prison or detained due to court marital or civil court felony.
What Does It Mean for an Injury or Illness to Be “Service-Connected?”
Whether or not the veteran's disease or disability is “service-connected” is one of the most important factors considered by the VA in determining whether or not a veteran will receive disability benefits. There are several different types of “service-connected” injuries.
Direct Service Connection
The first type is a injury or disease with a direct service connection. In this case, the injury occurred directly due to military service, such as if the veteran lost a limb during military conflict. To obtain disability benefits for a directly connected disability, the veteran must show all of the following:
- evidence of current disability
- medical or sound lay evidence of an in-service occurrence of the disease/injury
- medical evidence of a connection between the in-service incident and the current disability or disease.
Aggravated Injury Connection
Generally, military service members are presumed to be in sound health at the start of their military service. In some circumstances, however, if a veteran suffered from a pre-existing condition and can prove that his or her military service or some incident therein aggravated his or her condition, then that veteran may be eligible for disability benefits. In such cases, the pre-existing condition usually must be noted on the service member's original medical exam, showing that the service member was not originally of sound health. The veteran must also prove thorough medical evidence that the condition was aggravated during active military service.
Presumed Service Connection
Another type of “service-connected” injury or disease is the presumed service connection, which occurs when the veteran develops a disability of disease that is presumed to be related to active service (of 90 or more days). Federal law expressly enumerates the types of diseases and disabilities presumed to exist as a result of active service.
These disabilities/diseases include chronic illnesses, tropical illnesses, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, and Hansen's disease, provided that they cause the veteran to be 10% disabled or more. The statute dictates the length of time in which the problem must be manifested after military service to be considered service-connected. If the veteran was a prisoner of war during active service and developed a disease or disability with a 10% or greater rating, diseases such as anxiety, post-traumatic osteoarthritis, residual frostbite, to name a few conditions, would be presumed service-connected. If that person was a prisoner of war for thirty or more days, disabilities to a 10% degree or greater including malnutrition, chronic dysentery, and liver cirrhosis (amongst many others) would be regarded as service-connected, and that veteran would be entitled to disability benefits.
Certain forms of cancer are also presumed to be service-connected in cases where the veteran was subjected to radiation as part of their active military service (such as exposure to nuclear testing or explosion), and the veteran would therefore be eligible for disability benefits. Additionally, there is a presumption that certain diseases in veterans exposed to certain herbicide agents during their time of service, including any veteran who served in Vietnam during the Vietnam conflict, are service-connected. Likewise, certain diseases or disabilities connected to service in the Gulf conflict are also presumed to be service-connected.
In each case where the disease or disability is presumed to be service-connected, this presumption can be rebutted (proved false) with evidence that another injury or disease occurred after the time of discharge from military service and before the onset of the disability or disease.
How Are Benefits Determined?
Disabilities are rated by the VA and compensated by percentage, ranging from 10% disabled to 100% disabled. If the veteran is 30% or more disabled, compensation is higher when the veteran has a dependent spouse or children. Additionally, compensation is higher if the disability consists of more serious injuries, such as loss of a limb, blindness, and deafness, to name a few examples.
Under the current rates for veterans without dependents, a 10% disabled veteran would receive $123 per month, a 50% disabled veteran would receive $770 per month, and a 100% (or totally) disabled veteran would receive $2673 per month. Generally, the compensation rates are subject to an annual cost of living increase.
Eligibility for Disability Pension
For low-income veterans over the age of 65 who are permanently and totally disabled, there is also a VA program called Disability Pension. The amount of compensation is needs-based and meant to bring the veteran's income up to an amount set by Congress. In most cases, the veteran must have served for 90 days in active service and at least one day in a period of war (perhaps longer for those who entered active duty after September 1980).
How to Apply for Benefits
To apply for veterans disability benefits, a veteran must fill out VA Form 21-526 or apply online at the Veterans Online Application website (VONAPP) at www.ebenefits.va.gov. The veteran must also supply certain documentation, including a DD214 or other separation papers for all periods of service, copies of medical records, medical evidence of disability (including evidence that the disability was caused by or aggravated by active service), a copy of all marriage and divorce certificates/records, a copy of birth records or adoption records for all children living with the veteran, and nursing home records (if applicable).
A veteran receiving disability benefits may apply for additional benefits if he or she develops a new disability or disease that is connected to his or her service; in that case, VA Form 21-4138 should be filed.
A new law, enacted in 2007, allows those applying for veterans disability benefits to hire an attorney to represent them.