Service connected disabilities are defined as injuries or illnesses that are incurred in or aggravated by active military service. A disability can also be service connected through “secondary” service connection. Secondary service connection was discussed in our October 4, 2011 post.
Many veterans are aware that when filing for VA disability benefits, they are entitled to file for service connected compensation. However, many are unaware that there are disability benefits available for other disabling conditions, even if they are not related to military service. These benefits are known as non-service connected pension or simply known as veteran’s pension. Assuming that a veteran meets all of the requirements for a pension, he/she could qualify even if none of the disabling conditions are related to service.
A veteran may qualify for pension if he/she: (1) served during wartime, (2) has limited or no income, and (3) is age 65 and over, or if under 65, is permanently and totally disabled. In addition to these requirements, there is a length of service requirement (depending on the date the veteran entered active duty), the service must have been under conditions other than dishonorable, and the disabling conditions must not be the result of willful misconduct.
I will discuss three of the basic requirements for pension in this post.
Wartime Service– One might assume that this means a veteran has to have actually served in a war in order to be eligible. However, this assumption would be incorrect. The wartime service requirement is fairly simple to meet as long the veteran’s service was within a qualifying period. Meaning, the veteran does not have to have actually gone to war, the veteran simply has to prove that his/her service was during a period of war. In 38 C.F.R. §3.2, the VA gives the specific beginning and ending dates of each qualifying war period. For example, the “Vietnam Era” encompasses the period beginning on February 28, 1961, and ending on May 7, 1975 for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam and from August 5, 1964 through May 7, 1975 in all other cases.
Limited or No Income- a veteran must meet the income requirement in order to be eligible for pension. The VA will consider the veteran’s income, as well as the income of his dependents, including spouses and children. Countable income includes earnings or wages, retirement payments, interest and dividends, and some disability payments. It is worth noting that even if a veteran has income that may appear to be over the limit, it is possible that the VA may be able to exclude some income from the calculation in certain circumstances, such as if the veteran has qualifying unreimbursed medical expenses, certain educational expenses, if the veteran receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI benefits), etc. It is best for a veteran to list all sources of income when filing for pension, and the VA will determine whether or not the veteran is over the income and net worth limits.
Age 65 and Over– veterans who are age 65 and over do not have to prove they are permanently and totally disabled as long as they meet the other requirements such as qualifying length of service, wartime service, limited income, etc.
If Under Age 65, Must be Permanently and Totally Disabled– The VA determines permanent and total disability by considering several factors, such as whether the disabilities are likely to improve with appropriate treatment, pertinent medical opinions regarding the permanency of the conditions, the length of any required hospital care, etc. For veterans under age 40, the VA looks at the issue of permanent and total disability with more scrutiny. For a veteran under 40, 38 C.F.R. § 3.342 states that “permanence of total disability requires a finding that the end result of treatment and adjustment to residual handicaps (rehabilitation) will be permanent disability of the required degree precluding more than marginal employment.”
Veterans entitled to pension are paid based upon the Maximum Annual Pension Rate (MAPR). The pension rates can be found on the VA’s website at http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/rates/pen01.htm. As an example, as of December 1, 2011, a veteran without a spouse or child is entitled to a maximum pension rate of $12,256 per year, and a veteran with one dependent would be entitled to $16,051 per year. For each additional child, or if the veteran is housebound or requires aid and attendance, the amounts increase.
The lesson to take away is that a veteran may be able to receive pension benefits based on the combination of his/her disabilities, including service and non-service connected conditions. It is important for the veteran to always file for non-service connected pension if there is a possibility that he/she may qualify. Even if a veteran is initially awarded based on disabilities that are not service connected, he/she can always attempt to establish service connection at a later date. If a veteran is entitled to both service connected compensation and non-service connected pension, the VA will pay whichever of the two benefits results in the higher amount, not both.