All too often, we find that disabled veterans end up in the criminal justice system. Sometimes things happen to our service members during military service that they are not able to get past on their own, if at all.
We know that military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injuries, for instance, can cause problems that may show up immediately or may not show up until years later long after active duty.
Veterans who have suffered these types of injuries sometimes self-medicate with alcohol and drugs and further complicate their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Some symptoms are easy to identify, but sometimes the symptoms are more subtle.
For example, it may not be clear that a veteran’s hair-trigger temper, irritability to the point of violence, isolation from others, or severe difficulty dealing with authority figures are also symptoms of a service-related disability. Veterans exhibiting these problems may end up having significant difficulties in society and, too often, end up incarcerated.
What Happens to My Benefits After Arrest?
For the veteran, it is important to know that the Department of Veterans Affairs can and will reduce VA disability benefits when a veteran is in the criminal justice system.
VA will discontinue health care and services, including medications, to veterans or beneficiaries who are identified as fugitive felons.
A fugitive felon includes any person who is fleeing to avoid custody or confinement after a felony conviction, any person who is fleeing to avoid prosecution for a felony, and any person who is violating a condition of probation or parole imposed for committing a felony.
While the VA might not immediately find out about a warrant, not telling the VA does not solve this problem because then the veteran is creating an overpayment which he or she will be responsible for paying back.
If you are a fugitive felon, you must contact the agency which issued the felony warrant, not the VA, to correct any mistaken identity or other error, to have the warrant resolved, or to surrender. Evidence that the warrant has been satisfied should be provided to your local VA regional office.
Once a veteran is incarcerated, however, he or she does not technically forfeit eligibility for medical care. VA cannot provide VA health care or inpatient care to an incarcerated veteran who is an inmate in an institution of another government agency that has a duty to provide those same care and services. So, in effect, the veteran loses VA medical care while incarcerated until unconditional release.
What Happens to My Veterans Disability after Being Arrested and Convicted?
On the 61st day of imprisonment following a conviction for felony or misdemeanor, a veteran’s non-service-connected disability pension payments will be discontinued. However, it’s not just VA pension that can be affected. On the 61st day of imprisonment for a felony, a veteran receiving VA disability compensation for a service-connected disability will be subject to a reduction of his or monthly benefits to a 10% disability rate.
There will be no reduction of service-connected disability compensation if the veteran is imprisoned for a misdemeanor. If the veteran is already receiving only a 10% rate, the rate will be reduced by half.
There are ways around this reduction. VA Benefits not paid to the veteran during incarceration may be available to family members such as a veteran’s spouse, dependent child, or dependent parent. These dependents must apply for these benefits and must show a financial need for the benefits.
If a veteran is receiving education benefits, they can continue receiving the monthly payment if they were convicted for a crime other than a felony, as long as they meet the other eligibility requirements for the benefits. You may also still be eligible for monthly benefits if you’re enrolled in a work-release program or live in a residential re-entry center (halfway house).
You can learn more about the effect of incarceration on benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) at www.va.gov.
What Happens to My Veterans Disability Benefits While Awaiting Trial?
Veterans who are awaiting trial after arrest will not see a disruption in benefits. Since you’re innocent until proven guilty, the VA will only make changes to your benefits after you’re convicted. Otherwise, your entitlement to benefits remains the same.
What If My Conviction Is Overturned?
If you’re convicted of a felony, but the felony is later overturned on appeal, the VA will send you a retroactive payment of disability benefits. This will cover the payments that the VA withheld following your initial conviction. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to pension payments. Veterans will need to notify the VA if their conviction was overturned on appeal.
Can I Get My VA Benefits Back?
Once the veteran is released, he or she is entitled to resume the pre-incarceration disability payments as of the day of release. The veteran must, however, notify the VA within one year of the release in order to receive all of the VA services and veterans benefits to which he or she is entitled. A veteran may even notify VA of the anticipated release date ahead of time once he or she has some official prison or parole board paperwork showing the scheduled release.
In fact, veterans should know that some areas across the United States have begun to develop special courts for veterans which provide alternatives to a traditional criminal justice system and focus on providing help and treatment for veterans rather than simply focusing on punishment for the crime.
These courts are known as Veterans’ Courts. You can research the different types and what states have them here. Make sure you inform your defense attorney of your veteran status.
Finally, it is important to know that being incarcerated does not bar a veteran from applying for disability compensation benefits at their nearest VA. If you have a service-connected disability, you can file your claim and establish your right to benefits while still incarcerated so that you will have more of the help you need once you are released.
In addition, you have a right to have an attorney help you with appealing VA decisions as to your disability compensation. Help is available if you are denied compensation or if you are assigned a disability rating which does not reflect the severity of your disability.
Have Questions About Your VA Disability Benefits?
Entering the criminal justice system can be a stressful process, especially if you and your family rely on VA benefits. If you have questions about your entitlement to benefits after arrest, contact the team at Hill & Ponton. Our attorneys specialize in social security and veterans disability, focusing on client relationships. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.
Resources for Veterans
Homeless veterans in need of additional assistance can call the VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans using the phone number 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838). You can also find contact information for the Veterans Justice Outreach Program on the VA website.
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