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VA Benefits for Spouses of Disabled Veterans – Video

Video Transcription:

Maura Clancy: Good afternoon everyone, welcome to our Facebook Live Discussion for today. My name is Maura Clancy, I’m here at Chisholm Chisholm and Kilpatrick with Mike Lostritto and Kayla D’Onofrio. Today we’re gonna be talking about VA benefits for the spouses of disabled veterans.

So before we get into our materials for today, as always please feel free to leave any comments or questions that you have in the comments feed next to this video. We will do our best to go through the comments and questions that you post there, and either put responses right in the comments feed directly to you, or perhaps discuss some of the questions that we get during our discussion today if time permits. We have a lot of resources on our website at cck-law.com that go into more depth about the topics that we’re going to be talking about today, and any other things that we’re not able to get to. So also please feel free to reference any materials that we have on our website which include blog posts and previous videos etcetera. And I think that takes care of the administrative stuff so without further ado, we’re going to get started.

One thing that we want to reference at the outset is that veterans who are receiving monthly compensation are sometimes receiving dependency benefits. Today we’re going to be talking about benefits that are specifically for spouses of disabled veterans. But Kayla, can you tell us what those dependency benefits are for generally when veterans are receiving those as part of their monthly compensation?

Kayla D’Onofrio: Yes. So when a veteran is combined at a 30% rating or more for their service-connected disabilities, they are entitled to receive a little bit of additional compensation every month for each eligible dependent. So that include spouses and eligible children as well.

Maura: So the dependency benefits are built in to the veteran’s check.

Kayla: Correct.

Maura: Essentially every month.

Kayla: Correct.

Maura: So we– sometimes if you hear dependency benefits or benefits that are being paid to a veteran to reflect that they have certain dependents, those are still benefits that do go to the veteran as Kayla said. But now we’re going to start talking about benefits that are specific for spouses. These are separate and apart from the monthly compensation benefits that veterans themselves receive.

So, one of the biggest benefits that we deal with on a pretty regular basis here are called Dependence Educational Assistance benefits. So Mike, can you tell us about those types of benefits? We’ll call them DEA for today’s purposes, Dependence Educational Assistance. Can you tell us what DEA is and what it can be used for?

Mike Lostritto: Yes, absolutely. So DEA, as Maura just said, otherwise known as chapter thirty-five benefits so you may hear that term as well. It’s all referencing the same exact benefit. And this chapter thirty-five references the specific provision of the US code, that’s where that comes from. But these are basically benefits that are afforded to a veteran’s dependent that recognize the fact that due to a veteran’s death or disability, in this case, the spouse may be left in a position where they’re unable to have the resources to seek out educational assistance and other things that they might have otherwise had but for the fact that the veteran either passed away due to a service-connected condition, or severely disabled. And so these benefits come into form of tuition assistance for college, university, career training, reimbursements for licensing, certification assessments, on the job training, things like that, that’s the intent of these particular types of benefits.

Maura: Okay that makes sense. And it’s good to know that these apply to different types of schooling. That’s not something that necessarily you can glean from what DEA is but it does apply to different educational programs, which is helpful. And Mike, can you tell us how a spouse of a disabled veteran would be able to qualify for these benefits? What are some of the instances in which a veteran’s service or a veteran’s connected status would get the spouse eligible for DEA benefits?

Mike: Yes, there are really a number of different ways, but some of the more common ways include if the veteran is deemed or granted what’s called permanent and total status for a service-connected condition, then the veteran’s spouse will be entitled to these DEA benefits. Just taking a step back for a moment, what permanent and total status really means is that a veteran’s service-connected condition is rated a hundred percent, so total, and it’s deemed to be permanent in nature. And that just means that there’s really no reasonable likelihood that the condition is going to improve. And so if a veteran is granted what’s called permanent total status due to a service-connected condition, then like I said, that’s one way for a spouse to receive these DEA benefits. There are other ways though. So if a veteran passes away and the veteran passes away due to a service-connected condition, then the veteran’s spouse will also qualify for DEA benefits.

And finally, if a veteran again passes away but maybe it’s not necessarily related to a service-connected condition but they otherwise have a service-connected condition that has been deemed to be permanent and total, as we were just referring to, and in so in that circumstance, a veteran’s spouse would also qualify for DEA benefits. There are some other kind of in the weeds type of requirements and things that a spouse can meet in order to get these benefits, but I would say, in at least in my practice, those are the three most common things that we see all the time.

Maura: I think Mike is right. The biggest one that we usually see is the permanent and total status. And that in itself can be a confusing concept. So to be permanent and total, the veteran has to be rated at a hundred percent. As Mike said, there has to be some awareness by VA that the disability is not going to improve hence the permanent requirement and the total disability rating pertains to the one hundred percent rating. You can have the P&T status, or permanent and total status, if you receive entitlement to TDIU or total disability benefits based on individual unemployability. That’s another thing to know. It doesn’t have to be a schedular one hundred percent benefit. But sometimes VA will grant you a one hundred percent rating and/or TDIU, and not assign permanent and total status. We do see questions on that a lot. Why does VA do it in some cases and not others? It’s kind of confusing to us even. So just be aware that having a one hundred percent isn’t necessarily the end of the story. There has to that P&T status as well.

Mike: Yes. That’s a great point. As you said, TDIU does not necessarily mean that it’s permanent. So just be on the lookout for that. And oftentimes, veterans will see if they received a grant for TDIU, the benefit, the DEA benefit will also be included in that grant so that’s something to be on the lookout for.

Maura: And how long are DEA benefits good for? I would imagine that it’s not just an unlimited amount of educational assistance that the spouse can receive. So can you tell us about how long a spouse might have to use those benefits or how long they’re entitled to those benefits?

Mike: Yes. So the DEA benefits last for– well I should say a spouse is entitled to, up to thirty-five MONTHS of DEA benefits. And so those benefits really take effect, if you will, in most instances ten years from the date either of the veteran’s death or from the date that these DEA benefits were granted. There are certain circumstances where a spouse will have twenty years in order to use those benefits. But that really is only in a situation where the veteran, unfortunately, passed away while on active duty.

Maura: Okay.

Mike: So by far the most common scenario we see is, the death– the ten year period from either the date of death or from the date the benefit is granted.

Maura: And then the thirty-five months of benefits can be used throughout that ten year period?

Mike: Yes. So–.

Maura: Okay.

Mike: That’s like the max, basically the maximum amount of benefits that will be granted.

Maura: And how do you apply for DEA benefits? So we see sometimes VA will grant DEA in decisions where they’re granting a veteran one hundred percent rating, based on their P&T status. But is there a specific application that a spouse needs to fill out to start getting those benefits coming to them?

Mike: Yes. So like as you eluded to– like most things in the VA, it requires a veteran to– or the veteran’s spouse to fill out a form and submit that to the regional office. That form is VA form 22-5490. And so that’s a form that you can find on the VA’s website. If you’d like, take a look at it, print it out, and submit it. But as you also said that oftentimes these benefits are granted right off the bat. If a veteran is granted permanent and total status or TDIU, and TDIU’s deemed to be permanent in nature, oftentimes we’ll see VA– not always. But oftentimes we’ll see VA will also grant DEA benefits as part of that decision. So when you open up your rating decision, you’ll see it right there.

Veterans are also, you know, surviving spouses are also allowed to appeal those decisions that grant the benefit if they think they’re entitled to DEA, but it’s not granted automatically in the decision. So that’s just another avenue in addition to, maybe filing the form to apply for the benefit.

Maura: All right. Great, thanks.

Kayla: Yes.

Maura: Kayla, I’m going to move on to you. We’re going to move on to a totally separate benefit for the spouses of disabled veterans which is the Civilian Health and Medical Program that VA offers. We refer to it as CHAMPVA just another acronym in the VA world. They’re full of them. So Kayla, can you first tell us what CHAMPVA is? And how a veteran’s spouse might qualify for it?

Kayla: Yes. So CHAMPVA is a healthcare program where VA will help to share some of the cost of certain medical expenses or services or medical equipment to any eligible beneficiaries. So in order for a spouse to qualify for this benefit, the veteran must either currently be rated as permanently and totally disabled due to their service-connected disabilities or they were at the time that they passed away. They could’ve also died in the line of duty or died due to a service-connected disability.

Maura: Okay, and what kind of services are provided under CHAMP-VA? So if someone is eligible for it, what might they expect to receive through this program?

Kayla: So CHAMP-VA will cover the cost of any medical service that’s deemed medically or psychologically necessary. So some of the different sorts of services that they do offer assistance for, is ambulance services, hospice care, full-time nursing care, certain inpatient-outpatient or mental health services. But there is a pretty wide variety of different services that they do offer assistance for.

Maura: And this is pretty important because as we all know, medical costs are through the roof for– it seems like everything.

Kayla: Absolutely.

Maura: So this can be– make a huge difference for the family of a disabled veteran, particularly for the spouse.

Kayla: Absolutely.

Maura: If they can get entitlement to these benefits. Another program that VA has is a Caregiver Assistance Program. This is something that they’re actually looking at currently as congress is working on the mission act and trying to implement the provisions of that. But can you tell us, first of all Mike, what the Caregiver Assistance Program is and how to be entitled to it?

Mike: Sure. So this is a relatively newer program. It began in 2011. This is a program that really recognizes the fact that oftentimes when veterans come home they require the service of a caregiver. And that’s– it can be a huge burden on the caregiver. And so these benefits were established to help alleviate that burden. And so really the requirements for this particular program are that the veteran has suffered a serious injury that impacts his or her activities of daily living. A serious injury you know, think of examples such as TBI, PTSD, maybe the loss of a limb. Those aren’t the only examples but those are examples of a serious injury. And that would certainly impact the veteran’s aspect of daily living.

And really the key to this benefit though is the time period. And so this program specifically applies, as at least currently, for veterans who served on active duty on or after September 11th, 2001. And so as we’ll touch upon, just in a second, there are efforts to expand that time period. But as of right now, the caregivers’ program is really focused on veterans from that specific period.

Maura: Okay. And as Mike mentioned we might as well talk about it now. The mission act is an interesting wrinkle in this program because until the mission act, this is a program, as Mike said, that was extended to veterans who served after September 11th, 2001. And as Mike said, it entitles the veteran’s caregiver to basically assistance payments for the type of services that the veteran needs that come from more serious issues. Mike mentioned TBIs, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, things that prevent the veteran from being able to do their daily activities.

The mission act has said that the benefits through this program are going to be extended to veterans who served prior to September 11th, 2001. Our understanding so far is that they are going to be extending these benefits first to veterans who served prior to 1975, I believe?

Mike: Yes. 1975 first. They’re basically implementing or trying to implement that in phases. So first, prior to 1975. But– and then from 1975 to 2001 is the second phase. But there are, you know, this is a hot topic in the news recently and so maybe you are familiar with it, but you know there’s been a lot of delays and there’s been a lot of difficulties with the rollout. We certainly have more information on our website if you’re interested in it. But I think, suffice to say, it’s a program that at least for now, veterans who served on or after September 11th, 2001, that’s the target of this particular program.

And the benefits that are afforded for this program really involve things like reimbursement for caregiver’s education, training, maybe travel expense, lodging expense when a caregiver has to go to a medical facility that’s far away. Perhaps a monthly stipend could be something that the caregiver would be entitled to under this particular program. So there is a whole array of different benefits that a caregiver can apply for, if they otherwise qualify under this program.

Maura: And we’re using the term “caregiver” but we really are sometimes referring to the spouse of the disabled veteran in these instances. Because we see so often that the primary caregiver for a disabled veteran is going to naturally be family, and often times the spouse. And as Mike mentioned before, there’s a huge burden that’s placed on spouses who have to play also the role of a caregiver and so this program can be very helpful in reimbursing those types of things that the caregiver needs to bare an expense for.

Kayla: Yes. And you know, this is another program that VA won’t come to you and ask if you would like to participate in. It’s really incumbent upon you as a caregiver to apply through Regional Office. There’s another form to fill out which also can be found on VA’s website. But like all things VA, this is going to require another– essentially a claim or an application to be submitted.

Maura: That’s a really good point, that VA is not going to be mailing you these applications. They’re not going to be doing any of the work for you really, to try to figure out if you might be entitled to these types of benefits. So definitely something to be aware of. And as Mike said, definitely look on VA’s website for the form that needs to be filled out. And another quick plug for our website also because we have been talking about multiple different types of benefits. For more information on anything that we’re discussing today, definitely feel free to reference our website at cck-law.com.

So now we’re going to move on to dependency and indemnity compensation. This is probably the first type of benefit that we think of, probably, when we think about benefits for the spouses of disabled veterans. So Kayla, can you tell us what dependency and indemnity compensation or DIC is?

Kayla: Yes. So it is a compensation benefit which is why it’s really something that we’re very familiar with in our practice because we do deal primarily with compensation services. It is a monthly benefit for the spouse for a veteran who died in action or died as a result of a service-connected disability. Alternatively, if the veteran was rated at 100% or receiving that unemployability benefit for at least ten years prior to the date that they passed away, and the spouse was married to the veteran for that same ten years, they may also be eligible to receive this benefit.

Maura: And are there other things that need to be shown for a spouse to be able to qualify for DIC?

Kayla: Yes. So, in order for a spouse to qualify, they must have been married to the veteran within fifteen years of their discharge where their disability began or was aggravated. They must have also been married to the veteran for at least one year prior to the date that they passed away. They could have also had children with the veteran and been living with them up until they passed away. If they were separated from the veteran within that time, they just have to show that they were not at fault for that separation. Alternatively, if they are under the age of fifty-seven they cannot be remarried. However, if they are over the age of fifty-seven and they remarry, they can still be eligible for DIC benefits.

Maura: So these requirements get a little bit tricky. There’s a lot of age things that come into play. There’s the element of remarriages and other marriages, and children and things like that. So one of the things that we see is that VA asks you for a lot of information about your family history for applying for DIC. They do ask for marriage information about previous marriages, information about children, etcetera. So what evidence should people keep in mind as pieces of evidence that are supportive and helpful in filing DIC claims?

Kayla: So like you said, one piece of evidence that we would want to submit is probably a marriage certificate. Just to show VA that that marriage was legally valid for the purpose of receiving benefits. If you’re applying for children, you would also want a birth certificate for the child. But specifically for spouses, we’re looking for a marriage certificate and prior divorce decrees from both the spouse and the veteran’s prior marriages.

Another big piece of evidence that we’re usually looking for in our practice is the veteran’s death certificate. The death certificate will, in most cases, list the cause of death. And if the cause of death is one of the veteran’s service-connected disabilities, it’s a very straight forward grant for VA in most cases they usually grant it right off the bat. But we can also be looking at contributory cause of death. So the primary cause of death does not have to be a service-connected condition if another service-connected condition did contribute to their passing. Sometimes that will also be listed on the death certificate, but other times it won’t be. We can still definitely make arguments to kind of work our way around that. We might want to get medical evidence from around the time the veteran passed away to help supplement that.

Mike: That’s a great point. I’ve- you know, we’ve seen here where we’ve dealt with maybe an elderly veteran who specifically died and has listed on the death certificate as may be blunt force trauma to the head having fallen in a nursing home or something like that. But he was service-connected for a knee condition or a back condition which made him a fall risk. And he frequently fell as a result of those service-connected leg conditions. And so as you were saying, that could be a potential argument or an example of the type of arguing you might want to look at. Even though specifically on the death certificate it listed something that was seemingly at least, unrelated to any service-connected condition there might be a link there. So that’s a good point and something to keep in mind.

Kayla: Yes, absolutely. It’s not always as straight forward as VA likes to make it seem.

Mike: Right.

Kayla: So you definitely want to be looking at some of those extra causes as well.

Maura: And there are specific regulations that talk about the different ways that you can persuade VA that a service-connected condition led to or contributed to the cause of death. So the things that Mike and Kayla mentioned are really helpful to keep in mind. If the death certificate lists a service-connected condition as Kayla said, that’s an easier case generally speaking. There are never any guarantees in dealing with the VA but those are definitely the easier cases. I feel safe saying that. But just because the death certificate doesn’t list a service-connected condition, isn’t the end of the story.

Kayla: Correct.

Maura: As Mike said, there’s plenty of examples where a service-connected condition might affect the vital organs of a veteran. And then they pass away and so there might be a link in the causal chain there that we could point too. Or that the spouse could point to in their claim for DIC. And unfortunately, these claims do require medical evidence often if you’re dealing with things like that. We often need medical expertise to help us persuade the VA that the service-connected condition played a role in causing the death, and therefore that a grant of DIC is warranted. So definitely things to think about if that sounds like your circumstances. Because these can get a little bit tricky.

Kayla: Absolutely.

Maura: If the veteran dies and the cause of death is something that’s not service-connected, is there still a way to maybe argue that the spouse is entitled to DIC?

Kayla: Absolutely. The veteran doesn’t have to be service-connected for anything when they pass away. And the spouse can still be entitled. VA will still, sort of go through that normal standard review process where the spouse will file a claim and they’ll make a decision on it. It will be a little bit more complex of a decision making process. They’re going to be looking at whether that disability is in fact related to service. And then also whether that condition did cause or contribute to the veteran’s death.

Maura: Okay. And a common question that we get is, “What exactly is a DIC benefit in terms of an amount?” So, we know that it’s not always the same amount that the veteran is getting when the veteran passes away in terms of their monthly payment. So Kayla, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Kayla: It is– the DIC rate currently is about $1,300 per month. It is separate from what the veteran was receiving at the time they passed away. Unfortunately, when they pass away, their benefits do at that point terminate. So the going rate as of right is about $1,300 a month. And it does range, on a pretty yearly basis based on cost of living adjustments.

Maura: That makes sense. And what about applying for DIC, how would a spouse of a disabled veteran go about doing that?

Kayla: There is a form like Mike said, most things through VA do require forms. And as you said it does require a lot of information about your relationship with the veteran. So including your marriage history, their marriage history. The form is the 21-5344, that’s called the application for DIC accrued benefits and survivor’s pension. So it is a form that’s used for many benefits which we’ll go into a little bit later as well. But it is a pretty lengthy form to fill out for a spouse.

Maura: Definitely a lot of information that’s needed.

Kayla: Absolutely.

Maura: And what will VA set as the effective date? So if they find that you are entitled to DIC, how did they decide what the effective date should be?

Kayla: If the spouse files, their claim within a year of the veteran’s death, the effective date will be the date of the veteran’s death. However, if they do file outside of that one year point, it will just be the day that VA receives the application.

Maura: Okay. That makes sense. So sometimes, that gets tricky. It seems like it makes sense to say that the date of death would be the effective date, but that’s not always the case, unfortunately. So it’s definitely important to keep in mind when the form is filed, when the application is made, and if it’s something that you are considering filing for, being aware of that one-year deadline after the date of the veteran’s passing.

Kayla: Absolutely.

Maura: The next type of benefits we’re going to talk about are accrued benefits. So this stuff can get a little bit complicated. Accrued benefits and DIC are sometimes in play at the same time. So Mike, tell us what accrued benefits are, how they differ from DIC, and when those might be in play.

Mike: So, with DIC we were talking about a monthly continuing payment, basically going forward that the veteran’s spouse would apply for. Accrued benefits, that’s something separate. And with that, what the veteran’s surviving spouse is allowed to do essentially, is file on the same form, the 534, that you were just speaking about for accrued benefits and essentially step into the shoes of the veteran and continue on with any pending claim or appeal that was pending at the time of the veteran’s death. So while they’re not going to be able to necessarily file a new claim, if there is a claim or an appeal pending at the time of the veteran’s death, they’re allowed to apply to continue on with that appeal, essentially and see that appeal to its conclusion.

In order to do that, the veteran’s spouse would have to apply for what’s called substitution. And so that’s a separate form that the veteran’s spouse would have to fill out to allow them to, like I said, step into their shoes and continue on with that pending appeal. Like I said, this isn’t a recurring payment, so we’re really just talking about retroactive benefits. If granted, the veteran’s surviving spouse would be entitled to accrued benefits for the pending claim back to the date of the claim. But only up until the date that the veteran passed away. And so we’re really talking about a closed period for which the veteran’s spouse is entitled to benefits. You know, I think it’s important to note that a veteran’s spouse can receive DIC as well as accrued benefits. It’s not one or the other. They’re really two separate types of benefits despite the fact that you would apply on the same form.

Maura: That makes sense. The point about the retrospective payments, or the retroactive payments, is important.

Mike: And that can be a little confusing for people. Because I think they think that they’re going to continue on with the monthly payments as the veteran should have been receiving.

Maura: Exactly. And that’s not the case. It’s just limited to the retro that the veteran would have received without the future monthly payments that the veteran would have received had they continued on with their appeal themselves.

Mike: Yes. That’s right.

Maura: And another thing that comes up with accrued benefits cases that I actually get questions on pretty frequently is, spouses are confused as to how VA could continue on with the case after the veteran has passed away. Specifically wondering how VA is going to gather relevant evidence. So say for example, the veteran passes away while they’re pursuing an increased rating claim, maybe it’s for an orthopedic condition that they’re already service-connected for, or for a psychiatric condition that they’re already service-connected for. Usually, prosecuting those claims requires evidence about the severity of the condition. But just because the veteran has passed away, doesn’t mean that VA can’t continue on developing the case. In certain instances, they are still required to get evidence if it would help the spouse substantiate the claim. And there are ways to get medical opinions, medical evidence about things, even though the veteran has passed away. So that’s important to know.

Mike: Yes. And the veteran’s surviving spouse who is applying for accrued benefits is allowed to submit evidence on their own too. So they don’t have to just rely on VA to go out and obtain that additional evidence. They’re allowed to submit, medical opinion for instance. And so, that’s– I think you’re right. That’s another often area of confusion.

Maura: Great. And another benefit that spouses of disabled veterans may be entitled to is called survivor’s pension. We’re not going to go too much into the specifics on this one, but we do have materials about this on our website. So, survivor’s pension is essentially pension benefits that a spouse can get that a veteran probably would have been entitled to while they were living. So pension requires wartime service. There are certain eligibility requirements around the number of days of service. And there’s also an income requirement. So those are things to be mindful of. DIC is separate from pension. Accrued benefits that we just talked about are separate from pension. Pension is its own separate thing, but that is something that is available.

And I think the last thing that we’re going to be talking about, in terms of the benefits that we have on our list for spouses are burial benefits. So Kayla, can you tell us about burial benefits for spouses?

Kayla: Yes. So the national cemetery administration has a benefit that is available to the spouses of veterans to help them with the burial services. So 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. They can also have their name and their date of birth engraved on the veteran’s headstone. And they’ll have perpetual care of their grave site as well.

Maura: Great. Was there anything that either of you wanted to add to what we discussed today?

Mike: I would just say that, you know, when we’re talking about survivors, spouses of veterans who have passed away, oftentimes the first thing that they– or maybe the last thing they think of is filing a claim for these benefits. So I think it’s something to keep in mind, especially in the DIC context, where yes, in terms of getting the earliest effective date, it makes a difference whether the veteran’s spouse files a claim for DIC within that one year period after death. But just because they don’t isn’t necessarily precluding them from filing a claim at a later date. So you know, I just wouldn’t want someone to think that the period has passed for them while it’s critical that they– you know, if they can file a claim within that period, it doesn’t necessarily prevent them from doing so at a later date.

Maura: That’s a good point.

Kayla: Yes, absolutely.

Maura: The only other thing I would have to add is that there are state-specific benefits that are available for spouses of disabled veterans, there are state-specific benefits for disabled veterans as well where you don’t have to go through the VA to get certain things. So definitely check with your state or jurisdiction and see if there’s anything else available that we wouldn’t have touched on today. Are there any questions?

Maura: Thank you so much for joining us today. We are hoping that this was helpful. And please feel free again to visit our website at cck-law.com. And we hope to see you next time.