You could be eligible for disability benefits from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs if you served in any branch of the military and sustained an injury or illness that impacts daily functioning. Disability pay typically provides basic monthly income and covers your healthcare expenses.
As a law firm serving the needs of military veterans and their families, Hill & Ponton understands the process can seem confusing and overwhelming. This guide walks you through each step of how to apply for VA disability.
What qualifies a veteran to file a VA disability claim?
Before you take the time to gather paperwork and complete the VA application, it is important that you ensure you meet the eligibility requirements. There are four criteria you need to meet in order to file a successful disability claim:
- You served in the military and have eligible military service
- You have a medical diagnosis of your disability condition
- Your disability was caused or made worse by your military service
- Current symptoms of your disability are active in present day
The severity of your condition (under the VA’s rating system) will determine the percentage of your disability rating. You can also find out what to expect beforehand with our VA Disability Calculator.
What evidence do I need to file my VA claim?
The evidence needed is completely dependent upon the nature of your condition and how it relates to your time in service.
You’ll need to provide medical evidence from a doctor or other healthcare provider that helps support your diagnosis. Medical evidence examples may include:
- Service treatment records
- Doctor’s reports and medical opinions
- X-Rays, MRIs, and other imaging
- Medical test results
If your condition is documented in your service treatment records, it’s usually a lot easier to prove that it is service-connected. If you are still in the military, see a primary care physician to get your condition on the record.
One of the most common mistakes made when filing a VA claim is not including all of the relevant evidence. Make sure you include everything that can support your claim, like medical records, service records, and documentation of treatment.
You will also need to provide military records, such as your DD-214 or other discharge papers.
The VA also considers the following as presumed disabilities and operates on the assumption that the veteran is eligible for benefits:
- A chronic illness that you develop within one year of leaving the military
- An illness you developed due to your status as a prisoner of war (POW)
- An illness you developed due to contact with hazardous materials or toxic chemicals
How to File a VA claim?
If you’re ready to file a VA disability claim, there are a few steps you need to do:
- Gather your evidence and submit your intent to file
- Submit your claim
- Await a decision (expect a C&P exam from the VA)
- Appeal if necessary (denial or rating increase)
Gathering evidence is crucial to supporting your VA disability claim. The process will be slightly different depending on how you intend to file.
You will complete and submit VA Form 21-526EZ. The name of this form is Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits.
- If you intend to file electronically, the application will set your effective date. Once you start the application, you have one year to complete it.
- If you intend to file via mail, submit an intent to file to set your effective date.
- You can also file in person at your local regional VA office.
Processing Your Claim
There are eight steps involved in how the VA processes your claim. Each of these steps can take anywhere between a few weeks to several months to complete.
- Claim Received: The VA lets you know they’ve received your claim
- Initial Review: Veteran Service Representative (VSR) will review your claim
- Gathering of Evidence: The VSR will gather evidence from a variety of sources
- Review of Evidence: Once the evidence is received, the VSR will review
- Preparation for Decision: The RSVR will receive and review your entire application
- Pending Decision Approval: The RSVR’s decision recommendation documents are reviewed and a final award approval on your claim is made
- Preparation for Notification: Senior Veterans Service Representative (SVSR) reviews the completed documents and authorizes release of award letter and payment
- Claim Completed: Claim will be closed by VA and they will mail you a decision packet
How long does it take for my claim to be processed?
The first thing that will happen after you send your claim, will be that the VA will notify you that it has been received. If you filed online, this happens within hours. If you mailed your application or dropped it off in person, it could take up to two weeks.
The VA will also let you know if they need additional information.
During the phase where evidence is gathered, you may be required to complete a Compensation and Pension (C&P) Exam, which will be helpful in determining your rating. The VA will send you a notification when the C&P exam has been scheduled.
The VA claims process is notoriously slow. It can take anywhere from months to even years to get a decision on your claim. If your claim gets denied, an appeals process will add even more time. As of May 2022, the VA is averaging 141.9 days to process claims.
Looking for further disability claims help?
Veterans generally have 3 options to get help with their VA claims:
- File your own VA claim online at VA.gov
- Work with an accredited VSO
- Work with an accredited Claims Agent or Attorney
Prepare and File Your Own VA Claim Online at VA.gov
Veterans always have the option of representing themselves for their VA compensation claim.
You don’t have to work with someone else if you don’t want to.
The VA website has been updated and improved upon, and now makes it easier than it has ever been to file your own claim online for free.
Each screen provides you with feedback about how to file.
If you choose this route, you will choose the Fully Developed Claim (FDC) option, and ensure that you have the proper evidence ready to upload. These include:
- Service Treatment Records, VA Medical Records and Private Treatment Records
- Medical Nexus Letters
- VA Statements in Support of a Claim
- Buddy Statements/Letters
Search and Find Accredited VSOs Near You
Of course, if you would rather not go at filing a claim alone, you can choose to work with an accredited VSO.
There are thousands of VSO officers around the world who can help veterans and service members, and their dependents and survivors, with VA claims, free of charge.
Some of the top national VSO organizations offering free VA claim help include:
- Disabled American Veterans (DAV)
- Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
- American Veterans (AMVETS)
- American Legion
Search and Find Accredited Claims Agents or Attorneys
If you’ve already tried to get VA disability benefits on your own or with a VSO, and you got denied, this is where an accredited claims agent or an attorney would be beneficial.
You can get free legal advice about your denied claim from the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP).
Most VA claims agents and attorneys work for a fee. Be sure you discuss this and read through any contracts carefully before you sign.
Our Law Firm is Here to Support Disabled Veterans
To summarize how to apply for VA disability benefits, you need to ensure that you are eligible, submit supporting documentation, complete an application and file your claim. While this is only four steps, each one can be time-consuming and expectations are difficult to understand at times.
The best thing we can advise is to request a VSO if you feel uncertain. Paying attention to details and providing enough supporting documentation is key to a successful outcome with initial VA disability claims.
And to learn more about the claims process, be sure to check out our e-book The Road to VA Compensation Benefits.
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