Can I get veterans' disability for a pre-existing condition?

You may be eligible for service-connected disability compensation due to aggravation of a disability.

You can sometimes get veterans disability compensation benefits for a pre-existing condition, though it can be more difficult than proving that military duty caused a new service-connected injury. If you had the medical condition before you served in the military, and your condition worsened during your military service, you can be eligible for service-connected disability compensation based on "aggravation of a preservice disability."

The steps for proving you had a pre-existing condition that worsened during active duty are different than for proving a link between your military service and a new injury. First, you need to prove you had a pre-existing condition, and second, you need to prove that it was aggravated during your service.

How Do I Prove a Pre-Existing Condition?

The easiest way to prove you had a pre-existing condition is to show that this condition was noted by the military when you first went into service. The records from your entrance medical exam can include this information.

Entrance Exam Mentions Your Disability

If your entrance medical exam mentions the existence of your pre-existing condition, this will prove to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that you did indeed suffer from the medical condition before you went into service. If you have records showing that your disability got worse while you were on active duty, the VA will presume service caused you to get worse.

Entrance Exam Does Not Mention Your Disability

If your entrance exam doesn’t make any mention of your preservice disability, the VA will consider that you were in sound physical and mental condition when you entered service. You cannot get disability for aggravation of a pre-existing condition until you can prove that you suffered from the condition prior to your military service. You will need to ask your doctor for help to prove you had the disability before you served in the military.

Information From Your Doctor

Ask your doctor to write a letter to the VA and to attach medical records showing that you had the impairment before you entered service. The letter will not be nearly as persuasive to the VA if no medical records are provided. The VA wants to see concrete evidence that you were treated for the pre-existing condition.

What the doctor says in the letter is also important. It is best if your doctor is able to say that you definitely had the condition before being in the service. If your doctor says you probably had the disability, this may not satisfy the VA.

What if I Can’t Prove I Was Disabled During Service?

If your pre-existing condition wasn’t mentioned on your military entrance exam, and your doctor was not able to satisfy the VA that you had the condition prior to service, you will face a difficult hurdle. You have to show by the legal standard of clear and unmistakable evidence that the injury or illness predated service. This is a difficult legal standard to meet, and you will need a disability attorney to help you.

Proof Your Condition Worsened While You Were on Active Duty

If you were able to prove that you were disabled prior to service, the next step will be to show that your condition increased in severity while you were on active duty. You do not need to prove that any particular incident occurred, only that your disability got worse. And you have to be able to prove that the increase in severity was not just the natural progression of the illness. VA will not award benefits just because your disability got worse.

If the VA can prove that your disability would have gotten worse even if you were not in service, the agency can deny you benefits. But the VA must meet the high legal standard of clear and unmistakable evidence in order to prove your military service didn’t cause your condition to get worse. That is a high legal standard that the agency may not be able to meet.

Temporary Symptoms Are Not Enough Proof

If you merely had a flare-up of your disability, or if you had only a temporary worsening of your symptoms, this will not be enough to prove that your disability worsened while you were in the service. Temporary symptoms are not considered adequate legal proof. You can get help from your doctor to prove that your underlying disability -- not just your symptoms -- got worse.

What if I’m a Combat Veteran or Former POW?

It is much easier for you to qualify for disability benefits if you served in combat or were a prisoner of war. Even temporary symptoms will be adequate to prove your condition got worse during service. The VA has this special rule to compensate for how difficult it is to maintain medical records in combat situations.

How Do I Apply for VA Disability for a Prior Injury?

You can  apply for veterans benefits online  or by using VA Form 21-256, Veterans Application for Compensation and/or Pension. You can download this form at  www.va.gov/vaforms.

What If I'm Denied Benefits for a Pre-Existing Condition?

If you have shown that your medical condition predated your service and that it got worse during service, and the VA is still denying you benefits, then it may be time to  contact a disability attorney.

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