If a veteran dies while a claim for benefits is pending, his or her surviving spouse may be eligible for those accrued benefits. If there is no surviving spouse, the veteran’s children may be eligible for the benefits, paid in equal share to each child. If there are no surviving children, the veteran’s surviving dependent parents may be entitled to the benefits, payable in equal shares. Note that if the veteran has a surviving spouse, and the spouse fails to file for accrued benefits, the person next lowest on the list may not file for accrued benefits in his or her place.
Accrued benefits are different from other types of death benefits in the sense that they are benefits that the veteran was entitled to before his or her death. They are based on the veteran’s entitlement, not the survivor’s entitlement. Therefore, there must have been a claim for benefits that had not yet been decided at the time of the veteran’s death, or if the claim was decided, the appeal period for that claim must not have expired.
A claim for accrued benefits must be filed within one year of the death of the veteran. Also, the VA will decide the claim based only on the evidence that was in the VA’s possession at the time of the veteran’s death, and the surviving spouse or family member will not be allowed to submit any additional evidence other than the veteran’s death certificate. A surviving spouse or family member who succeeds in a claim for accrued benefits is entitled to the entire amount of benefits that would have been paid had the veteran not died.
In certain circumstances, another method is available for a surviving spouse or family member (eligibility is determined under the same rules as for accrued benefits) to receive the benefits that were due to a veteran at the time of his or her death. This is a process known as substitution. Filing for substitution means that the surviving spouse “steps into the shoes” of the veteran and the claim proceeds as normal. The availability of substitution depends on where the claim is in the adjudication process at the time of the veteran’s death. In most cases, substitution is an easier and quicker process than filing a separate claim for accrued benefits. Also, if a surviving spouse or family member files for substitution, the limitation that the VA can only consider evidence that was in its position at the time of the veteran’s death does not apply. The surviving spouse or family member will be able to submit additional evidence and claim alternate theories of entitlement, but will not be able to add issues or expand upon the pending claim.