The VA benefits claims system is unique because it is supposed to be a “non-adversarial” process. In theory, this means that the VA is required to work with you, not against you. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The VA is required to notify a veteran of the information that is needed in order to obtain the benefits requested. This called the VA’s duty to notify. Also, the VA is required to obtain information, and evidence that would support a veteran’s claim such as service records, service medical records, etc. This is called the VA’s duty to assist. The purpose of these duties is to make it easier on the veteran claiming benefits to gather all of the necessary evidence for a successful claim.
Duty to Notify: The VA is required to inform a veteran claiming disability benefits of any information and evidence that needs to be provided in order to be successful with that claim. This means the VA must explain what evidence they require you to obtain on your own, and likewise, what evidence the VA will obtain on their own. If the VA determines that a claim is not complete enough for to be processed, they then have a duty to notify you what is needed in order for that claim to become complete. On the other hand, if the VA determines that a claim is complete enough to process, they then must notify you of what information would be helpful to supporting your claim. For example, if a veteran told his mother during service that he had injured his back, the VA should notify the veteran that a statement from his mother about that conversation would be helpful in substantiating his claim.
Duty to Assist: Once the Regional Office (RO) has received your claim and determines that your claim is reasonable, they then must help you obtain evidence that is needed to support your claim. The VA must make reasonable efforts to obtain military service records without you having to request them to do so. Also, the VA must assist you in obtaining records from private doctors or hospitals upon your request. However, it is important to know that should the VA determine evidence doesn’t exist, they have no duty to continue trying to obtain it. That is why it is still important for the veteran to work with their representative to gather all medical records, reports, statements, etc. that would help substantiate their claim; you should never rely solely on the VA to develop evidence needed to substantiate your claim.