Due to the VA’s method of combining, rather than adding together, a veteran’s disability ratings, it is sometimes difficult for a veteran with multiple, service-connected disabilities to reach a 100% rating. The higher the combined rating is, the higher a new rating needs to be in order to add much of anything to the veteran’s combined rating. A total disability rating based on individual unemployability (TDIU or IU) is just an alternate means for a disabled veteran to qualify for a 100% rating. Under the TDIU regulations, a veteran is entitled to TDIU if a veteran’s service-connected disabilities prevent him from securing and following a “substantially gainful” employment.
What does substantially gainful mean?
The VA uses this term to mean employment for which the veteran is earning above the poverty level. The poverty guidelines for 2016 indicate that a person earning less than $11, 880 is earning below the poverty level. Of interest, VA regulations indicate that sheltered employment, such as self-employment or working for a family member in a position from which you cannot be fired, does not count as substantially gainful employment.
What does it mean to secure and follow a job?
Basically, these terms just clarify that a veteran is entitled to TDIU if his service-connected disabilities prevent him or her from getting a job and/or if those disabilities prevent him or her from keeping a job. While some physical disabilities such as knee or back problems would be obvious at an interview and might prevent a veteran from getting a job, other disabilities, such as PTSD, might not show up at an interview. A veteran with a service-connected mental disability might have no trouble getting jobs, but keeping a job, with symptoms such as impaired anger management, depression, or an inability to get along with others, is much easier said than done. Both the inability to get a job and the inability to keep a job would qualify a veteran for TDIU.
If the Social Security Administration (SSA) has found me totally disabled, why doesn’t the VA do the same?
This is an issue which frustrates many veterans. How can one government agency determine that a veteran cannot work while another says that he or she can? VA and SSA are operating under different standards here. For a veteran to qualify for TDIU from the VA, the issue is whether his service-connected conditions, alone, prevent the veteran from working. SSA does not separate out service-connected and non-service-connected conditions in its considerations. For example, a veteran who is service connected only for PTSD may also have other, non-service-connected conditions, such as a lumbar spine disability. SSA might find that the veteran is disabled due to the lumbar spine condition only or due to the combination of the disabilities. VA, however, cannot grant TDIU to a veteran whose inability to work is caused by non-service connected conditions.
A common mistake made by the VA, though, is that the VA sometimes recognizes that the SSA has determined total disability by considering non-service-connected conditions but forgets to complete the analysis and determine whether the veteran would still be totally disabled if he or she did not have the non-service-connected conditions. Just because a veteran is totally disabled by his non-service-connected lumbar condition does not mean that he is not equally disabled by his service-connected PTSD. The veteran could, and often does, have more than one condition which, on its own, would prevent the veteran from working.
How can VA expect an 85-year-old man to work?
Age is a factor which VA is not allowed to consider when determining if a veteran is entitled to TDIU. Again, the only consideration is whether the service-connected conditions prevent the veteran from working. So, if a 35-year-old man could work with a certain level of disability, VA assumes that an 85-year-old man could too.
I don’t meet the VA’s TDIU Percentages. Should I give up on qualifying for TDIU?
Definitely not. VA regulations provide that a veteran who has a single disability rated at 60% or more should be considered for TDIU. Similarly, a veteran who has a single disability rated at 40% or more, with a combination of disabilities totaling 70% or higher should also be considered for TDIU. These percentages just mean that VA should automatically consider a veteran who reaches that level of disability and look at whether the veteran is unemployable.
There is a second part to the VA’s TDIU regulation. If a veteran’s service-connected disabilities prevent the veteran from getting or keeping substantially gainful employment, even if those disabilities do not meet the 60% or 40/70% thresholds, that veteran can still be considered for TDIU and should request that consideration. Cases where the veteran does not meet the percentage requirements are more difficult to win, but that is no reason not to pursue them.