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Who Qualifies for Survivor Benefits from the VA

The family members of a disabled veteran are often dependent on the disability benefits that the veteran receives from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  It can be a shock and a financial hardship to the family when those benefits stop upon the death of the veteran.  Sometimes, however, there are benefits available to those family members if they know what to ask for.

The first concern, however,  is whether a family member even qualifies as a veteran’s survivor.  This issue is not always as simple as it would seem.  The list of family members whom the VA will consider as survivors for purposes of VA benefits is a small list.  The surviving spouse or qualifying children of the veteran may be entitled to benefits.  In addition, if the veteran’s parents were dependents of the veteran, they may also be entitled to benefits.  It is unclear, however, who the preferred survivor is in a circumstance where more than one survivor is claiming those benefits.

In order to be recognized as the surviving spouse of a veteran, the spouse must be a person of the opposite sex, married to the veteran for one year prior to the veteran’s death.  The one-year requirement does not apply if the marriage occurred prior to or during the veteran’s military service.  The one-year requirement is also waived if the couple had a child at any time.

In limited circumstances, a person may qualify as a surviving spouse even if no valid marriage occurred.  For example, the VA may recognize a common law marriage in a state which does not recognize common law marriage if there is evidence that the veteran and spouse believed they had a valid marriage.  Common law marriages are difficult to prove to the VA, however, requiring evidence that the couple held themselves out to their community as a married couple.  It is important to note that the VA will only recognize one surviving spouse, so this issue can become very complicated where the veteran has had multiple marriages.

The children of disabled veterans may also be entitled to survivor’s benefits, but only if they meet certain requirements.  To qualify as the surviving child of a veteran, the child must be unmarried and under the age of eighteen. The VA recognizes biological and adopted children equally as survivors.  In addition, the VA will recognize step-children if those children lived with the veteran at the time of the veteran’s death.  Of course, as with all things VA, there are exceptions to this rule.  For instance, if a child is pursuing a course of education, that age limit may be raised to twenty-three.   Another exception is in the case of a child who is incapable of supporting him or herself due to physical or mental disability.  The VA will consider such a child a “helpless child” if he or she became permanently disabled prior to the age of eighteen. 

Any of these survivors may be entitled to survivor benefits, including death pension, accrued benefits which were owed to the veteran at his or her time of death, or dependency and indemnity compensation benefits (commonly called DIC benefits).  Sometimes the issues involved in who qualifies as a veteran’s survivor can be complicated.  If you think you may qualify, contact a professional who can help you determine whether you are entitled to benefits and what evidence is needed to establish your qualifications.

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by Attorney Shannon Brewer

February 16, 2012

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