How to Use Lay Evidence for VA Disability Claims
Lay evidence refers to written statements provided by a veteran, or those familiar with the veteran’s situation, that aim to help prove a claim for VA disability benefits. Lay evidence, also referred to as lay statements or buddy statements, can be valuable and versatile pieces of evidence to prove various types of claims.
Lay evidence is used to help bolster a veteran’s case and can be particularly useful for filling gaps of information missing from treatment records or service records. Lay evidence can also be used to provide clarifying information to better illustrate the veteran’s current situation.
To demonstrate the value of lay evidence in respects to different types of claims, we will provide a few examples. In claims or appeals for service connection, lay evidence can be used to describe the in-service event, injury, or illness that caused the veteran’s disability. Lay evidence can also be used to support a claim or appeal for an increased rating by detailing the veteran’s symptoms, their severity, and progression over time. Veterans unable to work due to service-connected conditions can use lay evidence to help prove entitlement to individual unemployability benefits by describing the impact these conditions have on their ability to work.
Who can write lay statements for VA disability claims?
Anyone with personal knowledge of the events being discussed within a veteran’s claim can write a lay statement. This can include spouses, family members, friends, coworkers, other service members, and the veteran themselves. Those writing lay statements should explain what they have personally observed or witnessed about the veteran’s condition, daily life, or the event that occurred.
Those writing lay statements for a veteran should always sign and date the document and indicate how they have this personal knowledge about the veteran’s situation. Following these steps will help to ensure VA finds the statement credible. For example, a spouse completing a lay statement for a veteran’s claim should mention the length of time they have been married and/or living together.
How to submit lay evidence for VA claims
VA does not require lay evidence to be submitted using one specific form. Specific forms do exist, such as the general form for submitting lay evidence VA Form 21-4138: Statement in Support of Claim and VA Form: 21-0781 Statement in Support of Claim for Service Connection for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder specifically for PTSD claims, but are not mandatory. Veterans can submit lay evidence on any sheet of paper. Again, be sure lay statements are signed and dated.
Weight of Lay Evidence
Lay evidence can hold a substantial amount of weight in a veteran’s VA disability claim when completed by an individual with sufficient personal knowledge of the veteran’s condition and the limitations it presents. Favorable and relevant lay evidence must be considered by VA when adjudicating claims, although keep in mind that lay evidence does not hold the same weight as medical records.
Lay evidence can be very effective to help prove some elements of a VA claim, but ineffective for others. For example, lay statements can be particularly effective in detailing a stressor for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder claims. These statements allow the veteran to tell their story in ways medical records cannot. Similarly, a buddy statement—lay evidence written by a fellow servicemember who may have witnessed the event— can be quite effective for corroborating a PTSD stressor.
Lay evidence is usually not effective in circumstances such as establishing a medical nexus between the veteran’s current disability and military service. Again, the effectiveness of lay statements has much to do with the knowledge of the lay person; if that person is not a doctor, they can not establish a link between a condition and service because they lack the expertise to make that judgement.
Credible and Competent Lay Evidence
In order for VA to consider lay evidence, it must be deemed competent and credible. Competency refers to the knowledge of the individual completing the statement. As mentioned before, anyone who prepares a lay statement for a veteran must have personal knowledge of what is being discussed. Credibility speaks more to the reliability of what is being said in the statement.
Common Mistakes that Reduce Credibility
If VA finds inconsistencies in lay statements, the veteran’s credibility may be at risk. Inconsistencies can occur due to a number of reasons, such as veterans detailing events from decades ago and providing different dates across multiple lay statements. To avoid such inconsistencies, veterans can provide more general time frames. For instance, instead of providing a specific date for an event, veterans can explain that it happened during the summer, or between 1970 and 1971. Veterans can also provide a more general view of the events if they simply do not remember, and can mention that fact in their lay statement. Never exaggerate or downplay your condition when writing a lay statement. Be truthful and consistent across all of your statements, and avoid “all or nothing” terminology.
What to do if VA determines lay evidence is not credible and/or competent
If VA determines that a veteran’s lay statement is not credible, he or she can respond with another lay statement. For example, if VA noticed inconsistent dates mentioned across lay statements, the veteran can respond by explaining that they do not remember the exact dates and perhaps provide some context, such as the season during which an event occurred. Always be honest in your lay statements. In the context of competence, veterans can submit a lay statement explaining how that person has enough personal knowledge of the subject matter to make their statement.
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