If you or a loved one was a veteran, you may encounter people who say they are experts in the field of Veterans Benefits, just to discover later that their knowledge is limited, biased, or non-existing to begin with.
The following are examples of how the wrong person can be detrimental to your VA claim. We will call this person “Bob” and he could be a well-meaning friend or family member, an accredited Veterans Service Officer, agent, or attorney, or anyone else who offers to help.
1. Bob says he knows all about Veterans Benefits, because his father is receiving them. He offers to assist you with your non-service connected pension claim. He completes the application for you, but documents net income instead of gross OR he documents the value of your primary residence as an asset. GUESS WHAT! Most likely your claim will be denied.
2. Bob is an accredited Veterans Service Officer whose expertise is service connected claims. You go to him for assistance with your non-service connected pension claim. He tells you that you have too many assets, but he will go ahead and file an “Intent” so that you will lock in a retroactive payment date. You then go to an elder law attorney for VA planning related to your excessive assets. GUESS WHAT! Because Bob filed an Intent with the VA, you must now wait an entire year before you can file; whereas, if you had gone to an accredited attorney first for planning, you most likely would qualify within a few short weeks or months.
3. Bob is a VA accredited agent and tells you (a veteran who served in-country Vietnam during the war) that even though you have active lung cancer and served in Vietnam, that you do not qualify for VA disability compensation because you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. GUESS WHAT! He is wrong, because lung cancer is presumptive to exposure to Agent Orange. It is also a 100% rating which pays much more than pension would pay with the possibility of even a greater award thru special monthly compensation (SMC).
4. Bob tells you (the widow of a veteran who is collecting dependency indemnity compensation (DIC) due to the death of your veteran spouse) that you cannot be awarded pension benefits due to your DIC. He fails to ask if you are a veteran, too, which you are. GUESS WHAT! Bob just cost you pension benefits, because he did not know that a widow in receipt of DIC can file a separate claim for pension if she is also a veteran.
5. Bob files a disability claim for you for hearing loss, because you were shooting “the big guns” during WWII. You are quite content with your 30% service connected rating, but GUESS WHAT! Bob should have also asked you if you have tinnitus, sleep apnea, and/or migraine headaches which could all be secondary to hearing loss and which could potentially raise your combined rating and benefit amount.
6. Bob tells you that he will be happy to assist you with your claim and the cost of doing so is $750.00. He tells you that if you cannot pay it, your daughter or son can. GUESS WHAT! Federal law prohibits the claimant or any interested party from being charged or for paying for assistance with an initial claim for benefits. Bob needs to be turned into the Office of General Counsel (OGC).
7. Bob says he will be happy to help you; however, he tells you that before he will help, you will need to purchase a “special annuity” from him. GUESS WHAT! Although some annuities are fine for VA planning, that annuity may (or may not) jeopardize your pension claim or even your Medicaid, should you need it in the future….be careful.
8. Bob tells you that he can legally transfer assets for you (a recent widow of a veteran who died two months ago) and get you eligible for pension benefits. GUESS WHAT! A surviving spouse’s date of entitlement is the first day of the month in which the veteran died; therefore, all assets count as of that date unless you wait a full year to file.
SO, the question then becomes, “how do you choose the right person to assist you with your claim?”
1. Be sure that the professional assisting you is VA accredited. If you choose to use a nonaccredited family member or friend, be sure that this person has permission with form 21-22a; otherwise, he/she cannot assist you. In addition, I recommend that your claim be turned into a VSO or an accredited attorney or agent for review before filing.
2. If you have liquid assets exceeding $50,000 and limited medical expenses, you should speak with an accredited attorney or agent who also fully understands VA and Medicaid.
3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Before choosing the person (or even a VSO), ask how many pension or disability claims they have done and what was the success rate. Ask questions that you already know the answer to. Ask if they are willing to represent you thru appeals should the VA issue an adverse decision.
There are a lot of well-meaning people out there; some who fully understand VA, Medicaid, taxes, SSI, HUD, and other federal and state benefits and some who do not. The best word of advice that we can offer is “Do your homework in choosing the right person” and to remember that just because someone says they know VA, does not mean that they do.