Common Mistakes Veterans Make When Filing for VA Benefits
When it comes to filing for VA disability benefits and compensation, there are many steps involved. It is not uncommon for veterans to make mistakes throughout this process. In this blog, we discuss some of the most common mistakes veterans make and how to prevent them.
Mistake #1: Waiting to File Your VA Disability Claim
On many occasions, veterans will wait to file their VA disability claims until they have all of the evidence they want to submit or until their condition has reached a certain level of severity. While these factors are important, it is also important to recognize that waiting to file can delay your effective date. An effective date is the date that a benefit became effective and it used by VA as a start date for the payment of disability benefits for a claim. Importantly, the effective date of a claim determines the amount of retroactive benefits a veteran will receive. Generally speaking, the earlier the effective date, the more back pay a veteran will receive. Even if VA initially denies your claim, your effective date will be preserved as long as you appeal in a timely fashion. Therefore, waiting to file a claim for VA benefits can potentially cause you to miss out on more compensation.
Mistake #2: Filling Out Forms Incorrectly
In order to receive disability benefits, veterans must first file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA allows veterans to file initial claims for disability benefits in a number of ways, including:
- Online, using VA’s eBenefits platform;
- By completing VA Form 21-526EZ: Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits and mailing it to the Evidence Intake Center or sending it by fax;
- With a legal representative, such as a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) or accredited attorney or agent;
- At a VA Regional Office with help of an employee.
Regardless of how veterans choose to file their VA disability claim it is important that they do so correctly. If not, their claim may be denied or the process may be delayed. VA Form 21-526EZ is comprised of eleven sections in total, several of which are very important for veterans to be aware of. To learn more about how to fill out this form, visit our blog:
Additionally, there are several new forms that VA has introduced under the Appeals Modernization Act, including: (1) VA Form 20-0995, Veteran’s Supplemental Claim Application; (2) VA Form 20-0996, Application for Higher-Level Review; and (3) VA Form 10182, Notice of Disagreement. Each form corresponds to a review option, or lane, within the new appeals system. For help filling out these forms, check out: “VA’s New Forms Explained: How to File Appeals”.
Mistake #3: Not Continuing to Appeal After Receiving a Denial from VA
After receiving a denial from VA, many veterans may feel as though there is nothing left to do. However, it is important to note that you have the right to appeal unfavorable decisions from VA. In other words, if you receive either a denial or a disability rating that is lower than you deserve, you can disagree with VA’s decision. Veterans are highly encouraged to timely appeal unfavorable decisions because upon doing so, their effective dates will be preserved. Once again, effective dates are important as they correspond to the amount of retroactive benefits you will receive. Under the new VA appeals system, veterans can chose from three different review options, or lanes, when filing an appeal: (1) the higher-level review lane; (2) the supplemental claim lane; or (3) the Notice of Disagreement lane (i.e. appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals).
Mistake #4: Not Filing for Secondary Conditions
A secondary service-connected disability is a disability that resulted from a condition that is already service connected. There are several ways that a primary disability can cause a secondary disability. Some diseases lead to other health complications that could become serious enough to be considered a secondary disability. Common examples of secondary service-connected conditions include peripheral neuropathy as due to diabetes mellitus and depression as due to orthopedic conditions.
It is important for veterans to file for secondary conditions at the same time that they file for primary conditions for several reasons. First, it is likely that the evidence in support of the primary condition will also pertain to the secondary conditions. This allows VA to clearly see that the two conditions are related to one another and should therefore be granted benefits together. Second, the effective date for the secondary service-connected conditions will match that of the already service-connected condition, again resulting in a greater retroactive award.
Mistake #5: Failing to Obtain a Medical Opinion
VA will often deny veterans’ claims based on a lack of medical evidence linking their conditions to their time in service. As such, a medical opinion from an expert or a nexus letter from a private healthcare provider can make a big difference. A nexus letter is a document prepared for a veteran by a medical professional that explicitly connects an in-service event to the current condition for which a veteran is seeking service-connected compensation. Veterans often make the mistake of relying on Compensation & Pension (C&P) examinations alone, which may not adequately represent the true nature or extent of their disabilities. Expert opinions and nexus letters may be helpful in this case as well in order to counter the VA examiner’s findings. A strong nexus letter should:
- Be written by a licensed professional in the appropriate medical or clinical field;
- Be based on the veteran’s service medical and personnel records;
- Be based on the veteran’s medical history before, and following, service;
- Address whether it is “at least as likely as not” that the veteran’s disability was incurred in or caused by service; and
- Provide supporting rationale for the conclusion, or in other words, the medical professional “shows their work” by elaborating on how they reached their determination
Mistake #6: Submitting Evidence That is Not Relevant to the Claimed Condition
When filing for VA benefits, veterans may be tempted to send all of their service and medical records to VA. In doing so, veterans might send too much paperwork, making it difficult for VA to locate the pertinent evidence that is most relevant to the claimed condition. It is important to include evidence with VA disability claims, but veterans must make sure the evidence is necessary to getting benefits. Otherwise, it will likely cause undue delays and VA rating authorities might overlook what is actually important.
Mistake #7: Not Understanding How VA Grants Disability Benefits
Many veterans are unaware of how the VA disability claims process actually works. While it does involve filling out forms and waiting for benefits, it is also much more complicated than that. VA only awards service-connected compensation when (1) you have a current, diagnosed condition; (2) you experienced an in-service event, injury, or illness; and (3) you provide a medical nexus linking your current, diagnosed condition to the in-service event. It can be difficult to establish all three elements of service connection. Nonetheless, it is important for veterans to know what VA is looking for when adjudicating their claims for disability benefits.
Mistake #8: Not Seeking Representation to Assist with the Claims Process
The VA disability claims process can be very complex as the regulations are constantly changing and the procedures are continuously evolving. Recently, VA underwent a complete overhaul of its appeals process, transitioning from the Legacy appeals system to the new Appeals Modernization system. As this shift brought many changes to how veterans file claims and appeals, it may be helpful to have a knowledgeable representative helping you navigate the updated processes. Representatives can help gather evidence to support your case and ensure that your claims and appeals are filed correctly and in a timely manner, adhering to all deadlines.
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