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Veterans Law

VA Benefits for Spouses of Disabled Veterans

June 24, 2019
VA Benefits for Spouses of Disabled Veterans

Spouses of disabled veterans may be eligible for VA benefits, such as disability compensation, health care, education and training, employee services, insurance coverage, and survivors’ benefits.

Additional Compensation for Veterans Rated Over 30% Disabled

VA provides additional monthly compensation for veterans with qualifying dependents who have a combined disability rating of 30% or higher.  Qualifying dependents include the following:

  • Spouse
  • Children under the age of 18
  • Children between the ages of 18 and 23 who are still in school
  • Dependent parents

The amount of additional compensation varies between dependents.  To determine the amount of monthly disability compensation to which you are entitled, click here.

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

Spouses of veterans whose death was related to military service or a service-connected condition may be eligible to receive a tax-free, monthly benefit known as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC).  For spouses to qualify for DIC benefits, veterans and service members must meet one of VA’s criteria:

  • “The service member died while on active duty, active duty training, or inactive duty training;” or
  • The veteran passed away due to a service-connected condition; or
  • The veteran’s death was not service-related, but the veteran was entitled to receive VA disability compensation for a totally disabling condition (or TDIU):
    • For a period of at least 10 years prior to death; or
    • Since release from active duty and for a period of at least five years prior to the veteran’s death; or
    • “For at least one year before death if the veteran was a former prisoner of war who died after September 30, 1999.”

To prove DIC claims, the spouse will have to establish service connection for cause of death, meaning that a service-connected disability was the principle or contributory cause of the veteran’s passing.  If the veteran’s claim or appeal is still pending at the time of the veteran’s passing, the surviving spouse may be substituted into the pending claim as the claimant.  If service connection is later awarded, the surviving spouse will receive accrued benefits (i.e. the retroactive pay the veteran would have received if he or she were alive) up to the date of the veteran’s death.

Spouses of disabled veterans are typically eligible for DIC benefits if they were married to the veteran for a period of at least one year immediately prior to the veteran’s death.  Some surviving spouses may be eligible for additional monthly DIC benefits in certain situations if any of the following criteria are met:

  • The veteran, prior to death, was totally disabled and receiving, or eligible to receive, compensation for a totally disabling condition (including recipients of TDIU benefits) for a period of 8 consecutive years; or
  • The surviving spouse has dependent children under the age of 18; or
  • The surviving spouse requires aid and attendance or is housebound

When applying for DIC benefits, VA will likely ask for a lot of information regarding family history.  For example, VA requires marriage certificates, divorce decrees, death certificates, birth certificates, etc.

Evidence to Support DIC Claims

As indicated above, survivors will submit a marriage certificate to VA showing that the marriage was legally valid for the purpose of receiving benefits.  Again, survivors would submit a birth certificate if applying for benefits for children.  The veteran’s death certificate is another critical piece of evidence to submit because the death certificate will, in most cases, list the veteran’s cause of death.  If the cause of death is related to one of the veteran’s service-connected conditions, then it should be very straightforward for VA to grant benefits.  If not, survivors can look for contributory cause of death.  Here, the primary cause of death does not have to be a service-connected condition if another service-connected condition at least contributed to their passing.  Sometimes the contributory cause of death will be listed on the death certificate, but other times it won’t.

Survivors might want to gather medical evidence from around the time the veteran passed away to help supplement their claim.  For example, an elderly veteran who died has blunt force trauma to the head listed on the death certificate after having fallen in a nursing home.  However, he was service-connected for a knee condition, which made him a fall risk.  He frequently fell as a result of his service-connected knee condition.  As a result, the survivor could argue that there is a link between his service-connected knee condition (contributory cause) and his death.  Overall, it does not mean a veteran is barred from benefits just because a death certificate does not list a service-connected condition as the cause of death.  In these cases, it may be helpful to get medical opinions from private doctors to help persuade VA that the service-connected condition played a role in causing the veterans death, and therefore DIC is warranted.

What if the Veteran’s Death was Not Service-Connected?

If the veteran dies as the result of a condition that is not service-connected, there still might be a way to argue that the spouse is entitled to DIC.  Here, VA will go through a normal standard review process in which the spouse files a claim and VA makes a decision.  During this process, VA is going to be looking at whether that disability is in fact related to service and then make a determination.

How Much Does a Spouse Receive in DIC Benefits?

Importantly, DIC benefits are not always the same amount that the veteran was receiving in monthly compensation when they passed away.  As of December 2020, the fixed monthly benefit amount for DIC is $1,357.56. It is separate from what the veteran was receiving at the time they passed away.  Unfortunately, a veteran’s monthly benefits terminate when they pass away.  However, the DIC rate changes on an annual basis based on the cost of living adjustments.

Applying for DIC

When applying for DIC benefits, spouses must submit VA Form 21P-534, Application for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Accrued Benefits, and Survivors Pension.

Effective Dates for DIC Claims

If the veteran’s surviving spouse files their claim for DIC benefits within one year of the veteran’s death, the effective date will be the date of the veteran’s death.  However, if they file outside of that one year timeframe, the effective date will be the date that VA receives the application.  Therefore, it is important to keep in mind when the form is submitted and be aware that it is done so within that one-year period following the veteran’s passing.

CHAMPVA for Spouses of Totally Disabled Veterans

VA will also provide health care insurance coverage for the spouses of certain totally disabled (whether rated 100 percent or receiving TDIU benefits) veterans under the Civilian Health and Medical Program, or CHAMPVA.  In order for spouses to be eligible, the disabled veteran must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Rated permanently and totally disabled due to a service-connected condition;
  • Died on active duty, in line of duty;
  • Died from a service-connected disability; or
  • Was rated permanently and totally disabled due to a service-connected condition at the time of death

Importantly, to be eligible for CHAMPVA, spouses of disabled veterans cannot be eligible for TRICARE (i.e. the healthcare program for uniformed service members, retirees, and their families).  CHAMPVA benefits are also extended to spouses ages 65 and older if certain eligibility requirements are met.  With CHAMPVA, spouses of disabled veterans will be covered for services and supplies when VA determines they are medically necessary and were received from an authorized provider.  Examples of covered services include the following:

  • Ambulance service
  • Ambulatory surgery
  • Durable medical equipment
  • Family planning and maternity
  • Hospice
  • Inpatient services
  • Mental health services
  • Outpatient services
  • Pharmacy (prescription medicines)
  • Skilled nursing care
  • Transplants

Essentially, CHAMPVA will cover the cost of any medical service that is deemed medically or psychologically necessary.  This benefit is very important considering the high costs of medical care.  As such, CHAMPVA can make a huge difference for the family of a disabled veteran, particularly for the spouse, if they can get entitlement to these benefits.

VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers Program and Qualifications

VA also offers the Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers Program (Caregiver Assistance Program).  The Caregivers Assistance Program began in 2011, but is currently being expanded under the VA Mission Act.  This program was implemented in an effort to provide benefits to caregivers (i.e., spouses or dependents who end up leaving jobs to care for a veteran full-time due to the extent or nature of their disability).  Caregivers are provided monthly compensation, medical training, and healthcare benefits.  To be eligible for the Caregivers Assistance Program, the veteran must have suffered a serious injury that impacts their activities of daily living.  Examples of serious injuries may include traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or the loss of a limb.  Up until this point, the Caregivers Assistance Program has only applied to veterans who served on active duty on or after September 11, 2001 (i.e., post-9/11 veterans).

Upcoming Changes to VA’s Caregiver Program

As mentioned above, the VA Mission Act seeks to expand caregiver benefits.  Specifically, the Mission Act states that the Caregivers Assistance Program will be extended to pre-9/11 veterans as well.  This expansion of benefits to include eligible veterans from all eras of service is supposed to be implemented over the course of several years, mainly in two phases.  VA reports that caregiver benefits will first become available to veterans who were injured on or before May 7, 1975, with further expansion to include veterans injured between 1975 and 2001 occurring two years later.  However, there have been significant delays and difficulties with the rollout of this expansion.  As such, post-9/11 veterans remain the target of this particular program for now.

Benefits Offered by VA’s Caregiver Program

Benefits that are afforded under the Caregivers Assistance Program include things like reimbursement for caregiver’s education, training, travel expenses, and lodging expenses for when a caregiver has to travel to a medical facility that is far away.  In some cases, caregivers may be entitled to a monthly stipend under this program.  It is important to note that VA will not initiate the process of entering into the caregivers program.  Instead, it is required that the caregiver applies through their local Regional Office.  To apply, caregivers must submit VA Form 10-10CG.

Veterans’ Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance (Chapter 35)

Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA), also referred to as Chapter 35 benefits, offers education and training opportunities to eligible spouses of certain disabled veterans.  Specifically, DEA recognizes that, due to a veteran’s death or disability, their dependent may be left in a position where they are unable to have the resources necessary to pursue education or employment training.  Furthermore, it acknowledges that the veteran’s dependent might have otherwise had such resources if not for the fact that the veteran either passed away due to a service-connected condition or is severely disabled as the result of a service-connected condition.  Benefits may be used for degree and certificate programs, apprenticeship, on-the-job training and more.  Additionally, spouses can receive reimbursement for correspondence courses.  Remedial, deficiency, and refresher training is also available in some cases.  Through this program, spouses of disabled veterans may receive up to 45 months of education benefits if they began using DEA prior to August 1, 2018.  If they began the program on or after this date, they now have 36 months to use these benefits.  To be eligible for DEA benefits, you must be the spouse of:

  • A veteran who died, or is permanently and totally disabled, as the result of a service-connected condition;
  • A veteran who died from any cause while such permanent and total service-connected condition was in existence;
  • A service member missing in action or captured in the line of duty by a hostile force;
  • A service member forcibly detained or interned in the line of duty by a foreign government or power; or
  • A service member hospitalized or receiving outpatient care for a VA determined service-connected permanent and total disability and is likely to be discharged for that disability

Once DEA takes effect, dependents typically have 10 years from either the date of the veteran’s death or the date that the DEA benefits were granted, to use the benefits provided.  There are certain circumstances in which a dependent will have 20 years to use DEA benefits; however, this usually occurs when a veteran passed away while on active duty.  The most common scenario involves the 10-year period from either the date of death or from the date the benefit is granted, during which the 35 or 45 months of benefits can be used throughout that time period.  Again, this usually reflects the maximum amount of benefits that will be granted for DEA purposes.

Applying for DEA Benefits

In some cases, veterans will see language such as “eligibility to dependents Chapter 35 DEA / CHAMPVA are established” in their decisions from VA.  Here, VA has granted DEA because the veteran has a disability that has been deemed permanent and total (100% disability rating).  However, before DEA benefits can be distributed, either the veteran or their spouse is required to fill out a specific application (VA Form 22-5490) and submit it to their local Regional Office.

Accrued Benefits and Substitution VA Claims

VA accrued benefits are benefits that are due, but not paid, prior to a veteran’s death.  Generally speaking, eligibility for accrued benefits depends upon whether the veteran had a claim pending, or was otherwise entitled to benefits, at the time of their death.  In determining entitlement to VA accrued benefits, VA must look at the evidence in the veteran’s file at the time of death.  According to VA, examples of accrued benefits include the following:

  • A claim or appeal for a recurring benefit (e.g., service-connected compensation) was pending at the time of death, but all evidence needed for a favorable position was in VA’s possession.
  • A claim for a recurring benefit has been allowed, but the veteran died before the award was issued.

In other words, for accrued benefits to be a possibility, there must have been (1) a claim for benefits that was not yet decided at the time of the veteran’s death, or (2) if the claim was decided, the appeal period for that claim must not have expired.  As such, VA accrued benefits end up being the retroactive pay, or back pay, that the veteran would have received if he or she was alive.  However, the surviving dependent will only receive compensation up to the date that the veteran passed away, not up to the date the benefits were granted by VA.  To apply for accrued benefits, survivors will submit the same form that is used for DIC benefits (see above).

VA Substitution

When a veteran passes away while a claim for VA disability benefits is still pending, an eligible individual may be substituted into the veteran’s case to continue the claim for benefits.  If this occurs, the claim will proceed as it would have if the veteran were still alive, allowing additional evidence to be added to the file.  Like a claim for DIC and accrued benefits, eligible dependents must apply for substitution within one year of the veteran’s death.  In the event that VA grants substitution, that alone will not mean the survivor will receive benefits.  The individual who is substituted in will only receive compensation (i.e., accrued benefits) if the veteran’s claim for compensation is eventually granted.

VA Survivors Pension

Survivors Pension, also often called Death Pension, is a tax-free, monthly VA benefit available to a low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse of a deceased veteran with wartime service.  In order for their spouses to be eligible for Survivors Pension, the disabled veteran must meet the following requirements according to VA’s website:

  • “For service on or before September 7, 1980, the veteran must have served at least 90 days of active military service, with at least one day during a war time period.
  • For active duty after September 7, 1980, the veteran must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty, with at least one day during a war time period.
  • Received a discharge under other than dishonorable conditions.”

Importantly, survivors must meet an income limit in order to be eligible.  Specifically, a survivor’s yearly family income must be less than the amount set by Congress.  If you are eligible for Survivors Pension, the amount of benefit will be the difference between your countable income (e.g. earnings, disability and retirement, interest and dividends) and the annual pension limit.

VA Survivors Pension with Aid and Attendance

Surviving spouses receiving VA Survivors Pension may also be eligible for aid and attendance benefits if they need help with daily activities.  Aid and attendance benefits provide monthly payments added to the amount of your monthly Survivors Pension.  To qualify for these additional benefits, at least one of the following must be true:

  • You need another person to help you perform daily activities, like bathing, feeding, and dressing, or
  • You have to stay in bed – or spend a large portion of the day in bed – because of illness, or
  • You are a patient in a nursing home due to the loss of mental or physical abilities related to a disability, or
  • Your eyesight is limited (even with glasses or contact lenses you have only 5/200 or less in both eyes; or concentric contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees or less)

Housebound benefits also provide a monthly payment in addition to that which you receive for Survivors Pension.  If you spend most of your time in your home because of a permanent disability, you may be eligible for this benefit.  However, you cannot receive aid and attendance benefits and housebound benefits at the same time.

VA Compensation for Veterans with Spouses in Need of Aid and Attendance

Disabled veterans are eligible for additional monthly compensation for qualifying dependents if their combined disability rating is 30 percent or higher.  Qualifying dependents include (1) children under 18 years old; (2) children between ages 18 and 23 years old and still in school; (3) spouses; and (4) dependent parents.  Additional VA compensation is also provided to disabled veterans with spouses who are in need of regular aid and attendance.  Specifically, if the spouse is (1) a patient in a nursing home; or (2) blind, or so nearly blind or significantly disabled as to need or require the aid and attendance of another person, the veteran’s amount of monthly compensation will increase.

VA Burial Benefits

The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has a benefit that is available to the spouses of veterans to help them with burial services.  When a veteran’s spouse passes away, they may be eligible to be buried in the national cemetery.  They are eligible for this benefit regardless of whether or not the veteran has already passed away as well.  Furthermore, spouses can also have their name and their date of birth engraved on the veteran’s headstone.  This benefit also guarantees that they will have perpetual care of their grave site.