When a veteran dies, there are several different types of benefits to which his or her survivors may be entitled. It is important to note that there are deadlines for applying for these types of benefits, so the veteran’s dependents should not delay in filing a claim. Three main types of benefits may be applied for by filing just one claim form—accrued benefits, Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits, and death pension.
Accrued benefits are due to the veteran’s survivors for any amount which was due and unpaid to the veteran at the time of death. This can mean that the veteran had received a rating decision but had not yet been paid for his retroactive benefits, but it can also mean that the veteran had a claim for disability benefits which had not yet been decided. Where the veteran had a pending claim for benefits that should have been granted based on the evidence in the file, he was entitled to benefits, and his qualifying survivors may also be entitled to those benefits. To receive accrued benefits, a survivor used to be required to file a new claim and begin all over again at the regional office. New laws, however, allow the survivor to substitute into the veteran’s claim at the same point in the process that the veteran had reached, whether that is prior to a decision by the regional office or into an appeal at the Board of Veteran’s Appeals or the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
A second main type of benefits, DIC benefits, may be available to the survivors of a veteran whose death is related to a service-connected disability. DIC benefits are not dependent on whether the veteran was owed benefits prior to death. For example, if a service member died on active duty, DIC benefits may be available to the qualifying survivors. Similarly, if the veteran had a service-connected disability which caused or contributed to the veteran’s death, the family may be entitled to DIC benefits.
DIC benefits may be available even if the veteran had not yet been service-connected for the disability that caused or contributed to death where evidence in the file demonstrates entitlement to service connection. For example, if a veteran served “boots on the ground” in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, he is presumed to have been exposed to herbicides such as Agent Orange. If the veteran then developed ischemic heart disease which eventually caused his death, his cause of death would be service connected because ischemic heart disease is on a list of diseases that the VA accepts as having been caused by herbicide exposure. Therefore, even if that veteran never applied for compensation for his heart disease, his qualifying survivors may still be entitled to DIC benefits.
Another way in which survivors may be entitled to DIC benefits is if the veteran was totally disabled by service connected disabilities for ten years prior to his death. This is true even if the service connected disability did not cause or contribute to the veteran’s death. Similarly, if the veteran was totally disabled at the time he was discharged and for at least five years prior to his death, the family may be entitled to DIC benefits.
A third major type of benefits for survivors is the death pension. Unlike the other two benefits we have discussed, entitlement to the death pension does not necessarily require that the veteran had service-connected disabilities or that they were related to his death. This benefit is based on financial need and claimants must meet certain income requirements. To qualify for the death pension, the veteran must have served at least 24 months of active duty (though there are some exceptions to this rule), at least one day of which was during a period of war. Furthermore, the veteran’s character of discharge must be other than dishonorable. The requirement for service during a period of war does not mean that the veteran must have actually engaged in combat. In fact, any veteran who has served since August 1990 has served during a period of war as the Persian Gulf War has never officially been ended by Presidential proclamation or law.
Other benefits may be available to the surviving family members of disabled veterans, such as health care, funeral expenses or home loan benefits. There are many options for assistance–get help finding out whether you or your family qualifies for benefits.