VA’s Benefit of the Doubt doctrine is a statutory and regulatory example of the non-adversarial nature of the VA disability claims process. When it comes to a balance of evidence, the tie is supposed to go the veteran. How does it work in practice?
Explaining the Benefit of the Doubt Doctrine
The Benefit of the Doubt doctrine is found at 38 USCS § 5107(b) and is outlined in 38 CFR 3.102. It states that “by reasonable doubt is meant one which exists because of an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence which does not satisfactorily prove or disprove the claim.” This means that if there is an equal balance of positive and negative evidence of a veteran’s entitlement to a benefit, VA is supposed to rule in favor of the veteran.
Additionally, this rule is laid out in 38 C.F.R. 4.3, which states that, “When after careful consideration of all procurable and assembled data, a reasonable doubt arises regarding the degree of disability such doubt will be resolved in favor of the claimant.”
What the Benefit of the Doubt Doctrine Mean?
The Benefit of the Doubt doctrine does not mean that if a veteran submits favorable evidence to VA, then VA will, or should, grant their claim. VA still has to weigh the evidence in the veteran’s record, and they can find some evidence more convincing than other evidence.
However, if for example a veteran submits a favorable medical opinion from their physician that details how the veteran’s disability was caused by an in-service injury, and there is also an unfavorable opinion from a compensation and pension examiner in the record, this could count as a balance of positive and negative evidence (holding everything else equal). In this scenario, VA should decide that the Benefit of the Doubt go to the veteran.
What’s the Problem Here?
The main issue with the Benefit of the Doubt doctrine is: who decides how to weigh the evidence? VA raters, Decision Review Officers (DROs), and Board judges weigh the evidence in the veteran’s file, but there is no way to know if they are all weighing the evidence the same. This inconsistency can harm veterans and result in the negative evidence being given more weight than the positive evidence in the file.
This rule also only applies if there is a balance of the evidence. If there is more negative evidence in the file than positive evidence, then the Benefit of the Doubt does not apply. However, submitting lay statements, either from the veteran or friends or family members, can be helpful in tipping the scales in terms of the balance of the evidence. It can help if veterans are aware what is in their claims file so they can see if they need to submit more positive evidence to help put the Benefit of the Doubt doctrine into play in their case.