Veterans and their families should be aware of the various benefits that may be available to them through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”).
I. GENERAL HEALTH AND OTHER PROGRAMS
The VA offers many special programs for veterans, among which are the following:
- Benefits for returning veterans:
Health care for 5 years following discharge
Dental care for service-related conditions
Coordination of services for the severely ill or disabled and their families
Various other services, such as home loans, vocational rehabilitation and education programs
- Special programs and initiatives for homeless veterans
- Special programs to assist minority veterans in obtaining benefits
- Benefits for survivors of veterans who have died in service and after service
- Special programs for women veterans and for veteran business owners. See, the VA website, www.va.gov.
Health care services are also provided through the Veterans Health Administration branch of the VA.
II. MONETARY BENEFIT PROGRAMS
In addition, monetary benefit programs are available through the Veteran’s Benefits Administration branch of the VA. These monetary benefit programs are separated into benefits for (1) service-connected disabilities and (2) non-service-connected disabilities. The primary benefit for service-connected disabilities is the VA “compensation” benefit; the primary benefit for non-service- connected disabilities is the VA “pension” benefit. A veteran is prohibited from receiving compensation benefits and pension benefits concurrently. 38 U.S.C. §5304(a).
A. SERVICE-CONNECTED DISABILITIES:
1. Compensation for Service-Connected Disabilities.
VA “compensation” is a disability benefits program that provides monthly monetary payments to compensate veterans for service-connected disabilities. Pursuant to 38 U.S.C. §1110,
For disability resulting from personal injury suffered or disease contracted in line of duty, or for aggravation of a preexisting injury suffered or disease contracted in line of duty, in the active military, naval, or air service, during a period of war, the United States will pay to any veteran thus disabled and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable from the period of service in which said injury or disease was incurred, or preexisting injury or disease was aggravated, compensation as provided in this subchapter, but no compensation shall be paid if the disability is a result of the veteran’s own willful misconduct or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
Thus, the general eligibility requirements for VA disability compensation are: (1) that the veteran’s injury or disease was suffered or aggravated in the line of duty; (2) that the veteran was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable; and (3) that the disability did not result from the veteran’s own willful misconduct, or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
If the veteran is found eligible, basic benefits are paid based upon how severely the veteran is disabled, and on whether the veteran has a spouse, children or dependent parents. An additional compensation amount is given when the veteran’s spouse is determined to require Aid and Assistance.
The VA assigns a disability “rating” to the disabled veteran, using a statutory ratings schedule, based on what it calculates is the impairment of a veteran’s civilian earning capacity resulting from the disability. 38 U.S.C. §1155. The Secretary adopts “a schedule of ratings of reductions in earning capacity from specific injuries or combination of injuries. The ratings shall be based, as far as practicable, upon the average impairments of earning capacity resulting from such injuries in civil occupations.” Id. The ratings range from 0% to 100%, in increments of 10%. The veteran’s monthly compensation is based on this rating. By way of example, an eligible single veteran with no dependents would be eligible for compensation ranging from $123 per month, for a 10% disability, to $2,673, for a 100% disability.
In addition to the basic disability compensation, a “special monthly compensation” (“SMC”), with a higher compensation rate than the compensation for a 100% rating, may be available for certain severely disabled veterans. 38 U.S.C. §1114.
2. Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (“DIC”).
DIC is a form of compensation paid to a veteran’s surviving spouse, children and parents, where the veteran is deceased as a result of service-connected conditions. 38 U.S.C. §1310. DIC is defined as “a monthly payment made by the Secretary to a surviving spouse, child, or parent (A) because of a service-connected death occurring after December 31, 1956, or (B) pursuant to the election of a surviving spouse, child, or parent, in the case of such a death occurring before January 1, 1957.” 38 U.S.C. §1101(14).
B. NON-SERVICE-CONNECTED DISABILITIES:
Improved Pension / Special Monthly Pension (“SMP”):
The Special Monthly Pension is a disability benefits program available to compensate veterans for non-service-connected disabilities. Like the VA compensation program, the pension program is based upon disability. However, unlike the VA compensation program, the pension program is also based on income and need, and the veteran’s disability must be total and permanent (but need not be “service-connected”). The VA “improved pension” provides a “Special Monthly Pension” (“SMP”) to veterans or their widow(er)s. (Prior versions of the pension program, referred to as “Old-Law Pension” and “Section 306 Pension”, are not discussed here.)
There are three (3) types of SMP: (1) the basic pension, (2) “Housebound” benefits and (3) “Aid and Attendance” benefits.
The pension is a monthly benefit paid to veterans (or eligible surviving spouses 38 U.S.C. §1541) who have limited or no income. A veteran cannot receive both a pension and service-related compensation simultaneously; if the veteran is eligible under both programs, the VA will pay whichever of the two benefits is the greater amount.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, pension “is a benefit paid to wartime veterans who have limited or no income, and who are age 65 or older, or, if under 65, who are permanently and totally disabled.” Id. “Pension” is defined in the United States Code as “a monthly or other periodic payment made by the Secretary to a veteran because of service, age, or non-service-connected disability, or to a surviving spouse or child of a veteran because of the non-service-connected death of a veteran.” 38 U.S.C. §101(15).
To qualify, the veteran must be discharged under other than dishonorable conditions; must have wartime service (in general, for those entering military service before September 7, 1980, consisting of at least 90 days of active service, one day of which was during a war-time period); must have limited or no income; and must be age 65 or older, or be permanently and totally disabled.
A person is considered “permanently and totally disabled” if the person is any one of the following:
- A patient in a nursing home for long-term care because of disability.
- Disabled, as determined by the Commissioner of Social Security for purposes of any benefits administered by the Commissioner.
- Unemployable as a result of disability reasonably certain to continue throughout the life of the person.
- Suffering from–
(A) any disability which is sufficient to render it impossible for the average person to follow a substantially gainful occupation, but only if it is reasonably certain that such disability will continue throughout the life of the person; or
(B) any disease or disorder determined by the Secretary to be of such a nature or extent as to justify a determination that persons suffering therefrom are permanently and totally disabled. 38 U.S.C. §1502(a).
With respect to income eligibility, the person’s countable family income must be below a yearly limit set by Congress. “Countable” income includes income from most sources, including “earnings, disability and retirement payments, interest and dividends, and net income from farming or business.” Id.
However, exclusions to “countable” income include public assistance, such as Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Id. Although the VA presumes that a veteran’s child’s income is available to or for the veteran, it may grant an exception to this presumption in cases of hardship. Id.
By way of example, the income eligibility limit (also called the “Maximum Annual Pension Rate,” or “MAPR”) for a single veteran without children is less than $12,256.00. Medical expenses may be deducted from countable income if they exceed 5% of the income limit (or $613.00, for the single veteran without children). Id.
The veteran’s net worth, or the net value of the assets of the veteran and his/her dependents, is also considered by the VA and, although there is no specified resource limit, net worth cannot be “excessive.”
Notably, veterans who do not initially qualify may reapply if they have unreimbursed medical expenses that bring their countable income below the annual income limit. Id.
Once pension eligibility is established, the monthly pension amount is calculated as the difference between the veteran’s countable family income and the annual pension limit (the MAPR), payable in monthly installments.
In addition to the basic pension, more severely disabled veterans may also qualify for Aid and Attendance or Housebound benefits. Aid and Attendance and Housebound benefits are not available to those who are not eligible for the pension. Although Aid and Attendance and Housebound benefits are available in addition to the basic pension, a veteran cannot receive both Aid and Attendance and Housebound benefits concurrently.
The Improved Disability Benefits Pension Rate Table reflects MAPR rates that vary, depending not only on dependents, but also on whether the veteran qualifies for Aid and Attendance and/or Housebound benefits. Thus, the annual income limit (which is also the amount from which a veteran’s countable income is deducted in order to calculate the veteran’s benefit amount) is higher for Housebound benefits than for the regular pension; the annual income limit for Aid and Attendance is the highest of the three rates. Id.
(2) Housebound Benefits:
Housebound benefits are paid in addition to the monthly pension for a veteran (or eligible surviving spouse 38 U.S.C. §1541) who qualifies for the pension and who:
- has a total permanent disability and, as a result, is permanently and substantially confined to his/her premises; or
- has a total permanent disability plus another disability or disabilities that are 60% or more disabling.
The requirement of being “permanently housebound” is met where the veteran “is substantially confined to such veteran’s house (ward or clinical areas, if institutionalized) or immediate premises due to a disability or disabilities which it is reasonably certain will remain throughout such veteran’s lifetime.” 38 U.S.C. §1502(c).
Once housebound eligibility is established, the monthly pension amount is calculated as the difference between the veteran’s countable family income and the annual pension limit (the MAPR), which limit is increased above the regular pension rate for those eligible for housebound benefits, payable in monthly installments.
(3) Aid and Attendance Benefits:
Aid and Attendance (“A&A”) is a benefit that is paid in addition to the monthly pension. A&A is available to a veteran (or eligible surviving spouse 38 U.S.C. §1541) who qualifies for the pension and who:
- is bedridden, or
- requires the aid of another person to perform activities of daily living, or
- is a nursing home resident, as a result of mental or physical incapacity, or
- is blind or nearly blind in both eyes.
A person is considered in need of regular aid and attendance if the person is “(1) a patient in a nursing home or (2) blind, or so nearly blind or significantly disabled as to need or require the regular aid and attendance of another person.” 38 U.S.C. §1502(b).
Once A&A eligibility is established, the monthly pension amount is calculated as the difference between the veteran’s countable family income and the annual pension limit (the MAPR), which limit is increased above the regular pension and housebound rates for those eligible for A&A benefits, payable in monthly installments.
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