In Part One, we discussed requirements for a spouse to be eligible to receive VA benefits. In Part Two we discussed the types of benefits available to surviving spouses. Today we are going to go more in depth into one of those types: Death and Indemnity Compensation, or DIC. Remember, the rules discussed in Part One regarding a qualifying surviving spouse apply.
DIC benefits are available to a surviving spouse if the veteran’s death is service connected, or, in some cases, if the veteran had a service-connected disability for a certain time period before death. There is no time limit for filing a claim for DIC, but if the claim is filed within one year of the veteran’s death, the surviving spouse may be paid benefits back to the first day of the month following the month in which the veteran died.
There are two ways in which a surviving spouse can be eligible for DIC benefits. The first is if the veteran’s death resulted in whole or in major part from a service-connected medical condition. The second is if the veteran had a service-connected disability that was totally disabling for a certain period of time before the veteran’s death (usually 10 years).
We will first discuss the first path to DIC, a death resulting from a service-connected condition. As you know, when a person dies there are usually multiple diseases or disabilities that are the principal or contributory causes of death. The principal and contributory causes of death are typically listed on the death certificate. Note, if the veteran died from a service-connected condition that was not listed on the death certificate for whatever reason, the case is not automatically lost. But, in the alternative, just because the death certificate lists a service-connected condition as the principal or contributory cause of death, that does not mean that VA must grant DIC.
In general, if a veteran dies from a service-connected condition and that condition was the principal cause of death, that is a relatively simple case for DIC. Where things get tricky is if the service-connected condition is a contributory cause of death. If that is the case, it must be shown that the service-connected condition contribution “substantially or materially,” that it combined to cause death, or that it aided or lent assistance to the production of death. This means it must be shown that there was a causal connection between the service-connected disability and death.
As you can probably guess, the decision as to whether a service-connected condition is a principal or contributory cause of death can be very complex and nuanced. For that reason, the most helpful thing a surviving spouse can do for a DIC case is to get an independent medical opinion on the cause of death, especially if the case is less than straightforward. Note that the VA may also obtain a medical opinion on cause of death as well.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the service-connected condition does not need to have been service connected prior to the veteran’s death. In such cases, the normal rules of service connection apply. Also, it does not matter if the veteran had been previously denied service connection for the same condition – the surviving spouse gets another chance to prove service connection, including the ability to submit new evidence. Once a surviving spouse is able to prove service connection, the next hurdle is showing that the service-connected condition was a principal or contributory cause of death as described above.
Finally, we will discuss the second path to DIC benefits – if the veteran had a service-connected disability that was totally disabling for a certain period of time before the veteran’s death. In these cases, the surviving spouse may be able to get DIC benefits even if the veteran’s death did not result from a service-connected condition. The most common way DIC benefits are paid under this path is the 10-year rule, which states that if a veteran was service connected for a disability that was continuously rated as totally disabling for 10 years or longer before the veteran’s death, DIC may be paid as if the veteran’s death were service connected. This rule applies to total disability ratings based on individual unemployability as well. Under the 5-year rule, DIC may be awarded if a veteran had been receiving total disability compensation beginning when the veteran was discharged from active duty for at least 5 years before death.
After reading Parts One, Two, and Three of this series, hopefully you have a better idea of what qualifies a person as a surviving spouse and what benefits are available to a surviving spouse upon the veteran’s death.