There are many veterans and/or beneficiaries who are unable to manage their VA benefits. The VA has a Fiduciary Program to protect these veterans by providing a fiduciary, or trustee, who manages the benefits paid to a veteran. A veteran can be deemed incompetent due to a mental disability, advanced age, or is under the age of 18. A finding of incompetence must be supported by medical evidence or a court ruling. In some cases, a court may have ruled a veteran is incompetent, and then the VA will also find them incompetent to manage their benefits. When this happens, a fiduciary is appointed. It is important to note that when a veteran is found incompetent by the VA to manage his/her benefits, this will not affect his/her right to handle other finances or assets.
How is a fiduciary selected? The VA will conduct a Field Examination in order to appoint a fiduciary. During the Field Examination, the veteran is asked to provide information about monthly bills, assets, medications, as well as emergency contact information, and contact information for the veteran’s primary care physician. A proposed fiduciary must first apply to the fiduciary program before being appointed, and veterans are usually allowed to choose their own fiduciary. For anyone to be appointed, though, they will be subjected to a background investigation, which includes checking criminal records, personal credit, and references. Only after a complete investigation is a fiduciary appointed to manage a veteran’s benefits. While VA policy states that a veteran is allowed to choose a fiduciary and that a relative of the veteran is preferable, sometimes the VA declines to appoint qualified family members and instead appoints paid fiduciaries, who too often mismanage or withhold funds.
Veterans in VA’s fiduciary program do have rights. These rights include, but are not limited to, the right to be notified when VA appoints a fiduciary and to appeal that appointment to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The veteran may also request that VA replace the current fiduciary with a new fiduciary, and if he/she has concerns about a VA-appointed fiduciary, it is imperative they contact the VA right away. If a veteran would like a new fiduciary, again, he/she should let the VA know immediately. A new fiduciary, by rights, can be assigned to a veteran at any time.
A veteran can avoid getting deemed incompetent by the VA. When disability compensation is applied for, the VA will send the veteran for a Compensation and Pension (C&P) exam at a local VA facility to evaluate the disability. If asked about the ability to manage his/her own money, the veteran should state very clearly that he/she is very capable. The examining physician will write a detailed report for the VA, and any answers pertaining to money management will be noted in the report. Telling the doctor that help is needed may cause an incompetency decision.
With all of that said, the VA is notorious for being complex and slow moving, and the VA Fiduciary Program is especially difficult to navigate. Enlisting the aid of a veteran’s law advocate or attorney is the best way to circumvent the myriad of confusion that is the VA.