Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a benefit available to qualified survivors of veterans. Qualified survivors can include spouses, children, and/or parents. The most common way to obtain these benefits is if a veteran’s death is already service connected by the VA. In this blog, I want to discuss a unique, but certainly not novel way that survivors can claim DIC benefits. Specifically, how survivors can use the theory of secondary service connection to their benefit.
For the sake of completeness, I should also mention that there are also other ways to obtain DIC benefits, as discussed in a prior blog: https://www.hillandponton.com/benefits-for-survivors-of-disabled-veterans/. But in this blog, we will focus specifically on obtaining DIC based upon secondary service connection.
When filing a DIC claim, one of the first things a survivor should do is submit a copy of the official death certificate. The death certificate will list the primary cause(s) of death, and if there are any secondary conditions that have knowingly contributed to death, those should be listed as well. In my experience, the VA is going to rely on the causes of death as listed on the death certificate when deciding whether or not to award the claim. However, the survivor’s inquiry should not stop there.
Secondary service connection is when a service connected injury or condition causes a new disability or aggravates a non-service connected disability. This theory is typically used by veterans to gain service connection; however, it can also be an effective tool for DIC claimants. In the DIC context, this theory can be used when a service connected condition is a ‘contributory cause’ of the veteran’s death, meaning the condition was substantial or material to the death, the condition combined to cause death, or that it aided or lent assistance to the production of death.
The easy cases are those in which the veteran was already service connected for a particular condition, and that same condition is listed on the death certificate as the cause of death. For example, if the veteran has service connected ischemic heart disease, and he/she ends up dying from a heart attack, the VA should have no problem granting DIC in that case. The harder cases are where the veteran was not service connected for a particular condition at the time of death; however, the survivor feels that the death is related to service.
I recently had a unique case where we used the theory of secondary service connection to obtain a favorable result for our client. Before death, the veteran was service connected for several conditions, including depression. The veteran did not have a heart problem. After a series of unfortunate events, the veteran tragically died from a heart attack. His death certificate listed the heart attack as the primary cause of death. There was no mention of his depression on the death certificate. Despite the non-mention of the depression, we were able to obtain a favorable result because the medical evidence in this case proved that the depression caused significant changes to the veteran’s physical health, such that he was more susceptible to sudden neurochemical changes, which ultimately resulted in his sudden heart attack. In other words, the service connected depression was the ‘contributory cause’ of the secondary condition, which was the heart attack.
If the widow in this case would have accepted the non-mention of depression on the death certificate, then she would have been rubberstamping the VA’s lack of diligence in pursuing all possible theories upon which this claim could have been awarded. In this case, the winning theory was secondary service connection.
Unfortunately, the VA is usually hard-pressed to consider all possible theories which might result in an award. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the survivor to think outside the box, and if there is a good faith belief for filing, the claim should be filed as soon as possible in order to preserve the effective date. The ultimate feasibility of the claim can be sorted out at a later date by the survivor’s representative.