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Veterans Law

7 Most Important VA Forms and How to Use Them

July 2, 2020
VA forms in binders stakced on top of filing cabinet

The Department of Veterans Affairs seemingly has a form for any action veterans want to take with their VA disability claims. In this post, we compile the 7 most important VA forms with instructions for their use.

VA Form 21-526EZ: Application for VA Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits

VA Form 21-526EZ, Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits, is a formal application for VA disability benefits.  Veterans are required to submit this form in order to initiate a claim for service-connected compensation.  However, veterans can also use this form to file a claim for an increased rating after the appeal period has passed.  It is important to keep in mind that with the new appeals modernization system, you cannot necessarily submit Form 526 if you previously filed a claim for the same issue (see later sections).

Submitting Evidence, Standard Claims, and Fully Developed Claims

Importantly, there are two claims processes that you can choose from when filing your VA claim using VA Form 21-526EZ: the fully developed claim program (FDC program) and the Standard Claim Process.

Fully Developed Claim (FDC) Program

Filing a fully developed claim (FDC) is supposed to expedite the claims process.  When you choose this option, you are indicating to VA that you are submitting all of the evidence available to support your claim along with your application.  In other words, you are stating that there is no additional evidence needed, thus enabling VA to make a decision more quickly.  Importantly, this does not mean that VA will not schedule an examination.

If you select the FDC option upon filing, but then discover additional evidence to support your VA claim, you are still able to submit that evidence.  However, you will be placed into the Standard Claim Process upon this submission.  Likewise, if VA determines that there is more evidence required, your claim will be moved to the Standard Claim Process.

Standard Claim Process

In the standard claim process, VA has more responsibility to obtain the information required to support your claim.  Such information can include medical records, examinations, and treatment records.  There is not necessarily a better option to choose unless you want VA to obtain information on your behalf.  Instead, it is more important to be mindful of the fact that when you file a fully developed claim, VA is likely not going to do any development.

Submitting VA Form 21-526EZ Application for VA Disability Benefits

VA provides multiple ways for veterans to file initial claims using Form 21-526EZ, including the following:

  • Online – using VA’s eBenefits platform
  • By mail – directed to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Evidence Intake Center, PO Box 4444 in Janesville, WI 53547-4444
  • In person – bringing a completed VA Form 21-526EZ to a VA Regional Office near you
  • With a legal representative – completing the form with a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) or a VA accredited agent or attorney

Generally speaking, filing your VA claim online is the fastest and most convenient way to apply for disability benefits.  Electronic records can be processed using a variety of automated tools, allowing VA to complete certain actions with greater speed.  Therefore, filing your VA claim online may give you the opportunity to secure an earlier effective date.

No Representative Can Charge Fees for Helping Veterans File VA Disability Claims

Importantly, veterans’ representatives cannot charge fees on initial claims.  In other words, as long as there has not been a decision and a subsequent appeal of that decision, the representative should not be entitled to any compensation.

VA Form 21-8940: Veterans’ Application for Increased Compensation Based on Unemployability (TDIU)

VA Form 21-8940 Veterans’ Application for Increased Compensation Based on Unemployability is an application for increased compensation based on unemployability.  It is a form that VA relies on when they are developing claims and appeals for total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU).  The purpose of this form is to provide VA with additional information about the veteran, such as his or her level of education and employment history, to supplement the request for TDIU.  If veterans do not submit Form 8940 along with their claim for TDIU, it is almost guaranteed that VA will ask them to provide one.  If veterans fail to submit the form, VA could use that as grounds to deny their claims.

What Kinds of Questions Must Veterans Answer on VA Form 21-8940?

As mentioned above, Form 8940 mainly asks the veteran questions regarding their occupational and educational histories.  Specific questions may include the following:

  • When was the last time you worked full-time?
  • What year did you have your highest annual earnings?
  • What job(s) did you hold during your last five years of employment?
  • What is the highest level of education you completed?
  • When did you become too disabled to work (as a result of your service-connected conditions)?

VA asks these questions to determine whether the veteran’s service-connected conditions result in unemployability; however, VA must also consider factors such as the veteran’s educational background and occupational history when determining whether it is likely that the veteran could obtain and maintain full-time employment.  Veterans can attach addendum pages to go along with the 8940 to give the best picture of their employment history.

What is Individual Unemployability and How Do Veterans Qualify?

TDIU is a disability benefit that allows for veterans to be compensated at VA’s 100% disability rate, even if their combined disability rating does not equal 100%.  TDIU is awarded in circumstances in which veterans are unable to secure and follow substantially gainful employment due to their service-connected conditions.  VA outlines TDIU regulations under 38 CFR § 4.16, which encompasses subsections (a) and (b).  Each subsection describes a way in which veterans may meet the requirements for TDIU.  In order to qualify for TDIU under 38 CFR § 4.16(a) a veteran must have:

  • One service-connected condition rated at 60% or higher; or
  • Two or more service-connected conditions, one of which is rated at least 40% disabling with a combined rating of at least 70%

Importantly, those who do not meet the schedular requirements under 38 CFR § 4.16(a) may still be considered for TDIU under § 4.16(b).  Under this subsection, VA must refer your entitlement to TDIU to the Director of Compensation Service for extraschedular consideration.  In either case, the essential question remains whether the veteran is able to secure and follow substantially gainful employment.

VA Form 20-0995: Supplemental Claim Application

Under the Appeals Modernization Act (AMA), veterans are required to submit VA Form 20-0995, Supplemental Claim Application, in order to initiate a supplemental claim for VA disability compensation.  Additionally, veterans can submit a supplemental claim in response to an unfavorable decision from VA but must include new and relevant evidence when doing so.  It is important to note that VA’s duty to assist still applies under AMA; however, it is different from VA’s duty to assist under the Legacy appeals system.  Specifically, the duty to assist is more limited and only applies to supplemental claims and original claims.  For instance, if a veteran files a supplemental claim for an increased rating and identifies relevant treatment records, VA has the duty to help further develop their case and potentially obtain such records.

Time Limits for VA Supplemental Claim Submissions

Veterans must submit supplemental claims within one year of VA’s decision in order for the effective date to remain the date of the original underlying claim.  It is important to note that a veteran can file a supplemental claim within one year of the following appellate decisions and still preserve the original effective date of a claim: (1) a decision from the Board of Veterans Appeals; (2) a decision from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and (3) a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. On the other hand, if the supplemental claim is filed more than one year after the decision, the effective date will be the date the supplemental claim was filed.

VA Form 20-0996: Application for Higher-Level Review

Veterans will be required to submit VA Form 20-0996: Application for Higher-Level Review in order to request a higher-level of review of a VA decision on a claim for benefits.  This option puts your appeal in front of a more senior VA official who may be more experienced in handling claims and appeals.  Typically, veterans can choose whether their appeal is reviewed within the same Regional Office or another Regional Office.  Importantly, veterans cannot submit new evidence when requesting higher-level review.  VA is only going to review your appeal based on the evidence that was of record at the time the previous adjudicator made a decision.  Furthermore, as mentioned above, VA does not have a duty to assist with requests for higher-level review.  With that being said, the higher-level review lane tends to be the fastest with veterans receiving decisions in about 2 or 3 months.

When Can a Veteran File a Higher-Level Review Appeal?

Veterans can file a higher-level review appeal with VA Form 20-0996 in response to an original decision.  This means if you filed an original claim and received a decision from VA, you can choose to opt into the higher-level review lane and submit Form 20-0996.  Additionally, if you filed a supplemental claim and received an unfavorable decision, you can also submit a request for higher-level review.  However, if you receive a decision following higher-level review, you cannot opt into higher-level review again.  Similarly, you cannot request higher-level review of decisions from the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

Informal Conferences

There are certain questions on Form 20-0996 related to whether you would like to have an informal Decision Review Officer (DRO) conference – a telephone conversation during which you speak with the adjudicator reviewing your case.  Essentially, this gives you a chance to be heard in your case.  However, it does create a bit of a delay.  In the event that you wish to have a DRO conference, it is important that you provide the best phone number for the adjudicator to contact you when filling out the form.

AMA Appeals Reform Infographic

VA Form 10182: Notice of Disagreement/Decision Review Request – Board of Veterans’ Appeals

Veterans will be required to submit this form in order to appeal one or more previously decided issues to the Board.  Although this form is also called a Notice of Disagreement (NOD), it is vastly different from the NOD veterans filed in the Legacy appeals system.  Now, all appeals to the Board must be submitted directly to the Board and will no longer be accepted by any Regional Office.  Within the NOD, veterans must select one of three dockets: the direct review docket, evidence submission docket, or hearing docket.

Direct Review Docket

The direct review docket, or direct docket, at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals applies to veterans who do not want to submit additional evidence to the Board, and do not want a hearing before a Veterans Law Judge.  In this docket, the Board’s decision will be based on a review of the evidence of record at the time of the agency of original jurisdiction decision on the issue(s) on appeal.  In other words, the Board will only look at the evidence that was in the veteran’s file when the decision on appeal was issued.

Evidence Submission Docket

The evidence submission docket is for veterans who want to submit additional evidence, but do not want a Board hearing.  In this docket, veterans can submit additional evidence to the Board with their NOD or within 90 days following the submission of their NOD.  Importantly, the Board is prioritizing Legacy appeals and appeals in the new system’s direct docket.  Therefore, appeals in the evidence submission docket will have longer wait times.

Hearing Docket

The hearing docket is for veterans who want to have a hearing before a Veterans Law Judge.  Hearings in the new appeals system will either take place at the Board in Washington, D.C. or via videoconference.  Importantly, travel board hearings held by Veterans Law Judges at local Regional Offices will only be available to veterans in the Legacy appeals system.  Overall, veterans are entitled to a hearing on any issue involved in an appeal.

Similar to the other AMA forms, veterans have one year from the date of VA’s decision to file a NOD with the Board.

VA Form 21-4138: Statement in Support of Claim (Lay Evidence, Buddy Statements)

VA Form 21-4138, Statement in Support of Claim, allows veterans to provide lay testimony (i.e., affidavit).  It is an opportunity for veterans to report on the onset, progression, and severity of their symptomology.  Importantly, Form 21-4138 can be filled out and submitted by veterans’ friends and/or family members.  For example, a veteran’s spouse may outline the debilitating effects of the claimed condition that the veteran experiences on a day-to-day basis.  Furthermore, a fellow service member can submit a “buddy statement” describing an in-service incident that contributed to the veteran’s disability.  Overall, this form can be used for several different purposes and in different ways, but ultimately, it is used to relay information for VA to consider when adjudicating the veteran’s claim.

VA Form 21-0781: Statement in Support of Claim for PTSD

VA Form 21-0781 is a specific form to submit with claims for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Essentially, this form is used to corroborate the veteran’s reported in-service stressor (i.e., the traumatic event that caused their PTSD).  It asks very specific information such as unit assignments, witnesses to the event, etc.

VA Form 21-686c: Declaration of Status of Dependents

Veterans with a combined disability rating of 30% or higher may be eligible to receive additional monthly compensation for qualifying dependents.  For VA purposes, a dependent is a family member who relies on the veteran financially and meets specific criteria.  Qualifying dependents include the following:

  • A spouse
  • Unmarried children (including biological children, step children, and adopted children) who are under the age of 18; between the ages of 18 and 23 and attending school full-time; or were seriously disabled prior to reaching age 18
  • Parents in the veteran’s direct care whose net worth and income are below the federal poverty threshold

To add or remove dependents to VA benefits, veterans must fill out and submit VA Form 21-686c, Declaration of Status of Dependents.  This 12-page long form asks for a very detailed history of your marriages, divorces, and children’s identifying information.  In regards to marriages and divorces, VA will ask veterans to submit certificates and decrees, respectively.  For children, VA will ask for copies of birth certificates and social security cards.  It is important to note that there is an additional form for children who are still in school called VA Form 21-674, Request for Approval of School Attendance.  This form requires information regarding expected graduation date, class schedule, transcripts, etc.

What Happens if You Do Not Add or Remove Dependents Appropriately?

If you do not remove a dependent when necessary, VA will create an overpayment.  This means that VA will begin to withhold money from your monthly disability check until the overpaid amount has been recuperated.  For example, you get a divorce and fail to notify VA.  As a result, VA continues to pay you additional compensation for your spouse even though you are no longer together.  When VA finds out there has been a change in the status of dependents, it will take back the money it paid during that time period through the creation of an overpayment.  It is crucial that veterans report any changes to dependents as soon as they occur.