It's not uncommon for veterans to have both Social Security and Veterans Disability claims going on at the same time. Alternatively, some veterans receive veterans disability benefits before applying for Social Security disability. VA disability benefits, also known as service-connected disability, is not based on income, so you can receive VA disability compensation and Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) at the same time.
There is also VA pension, which is a needs-based program similar to Supplemental Security Income (SSI). VA pension is paid to veterans who have very little or no income and are disabled based on non-service disabilities. It is possible to receive SSI and VA pension at the same time.
If you're eligible, it's best to qualify for VA disability compensation and Social Security Disability Insurance, since they generally are more generous benefits than VA pension and SSI, but you should be aware of the other needs-based programs.
Differences Between Social Security and Veterans Disability
Total disability vs percentage of disability. One major difference between Social Security disability and veterans disability is that you don’t need to be totally disabled in order to be eligible for VA compensation. In fact, most veterans who receive VA compensation do not receive a total disability rating. Veterans can receive a compensable rating as low as 10% (and can have a rating as low as 0%). (In many cases, it makes sense to get a 0% rating even though its not compensable. The reason for this is that it means the veteran will at least have proven a service-connected disability -- which may deteriorate into a more serious problem and turn into a compensable disability. See Filing for Social Security Disability as a Veteran.)
Social Security disability, conversely, does not compensate disability claimants based on a partial loss of employability. You are either totally disabled or not disabled under this program. (For more information, see Social Security disability basics.)
Treating doctor rule. Another major difference between the two programs is the "treating physician rule." In Social Security law, once it has been established that a claimant’s physician is a “treating physician," that medical professional’s opinion is given deference. This can be the difference between winning and losing a SSD claim. However, in VA law, the treating doctor's opinion is not given deferential weight, since the VA may consider that physician biased and because the treating physician rule conflicts with the important VA principle that decisions be based on the entire file, so as not to give any particular evidence extra weight. (See White v. Principi, 243 F.3d 1378, 1380-81 (Fed. Cir. 2001).) Also, iit can be difficult to get a treating physician to give a helpful opinion on disability for the purpose of veterans benefits, especially if the doctor works for the VA.
Does Getting Benefits in one Program Help Getting Benefits in the Other Program?
Does having one benefit make getting the other benefit any easier? Overall, the answer is yes, but it does depend on your circumstances.
VA approval can help get Social Security disability. If you are the recipient of a very high VA rating (70% or higher), then your chances for success on your Social Security disability claim are quite high. This is because another federal agency has already found that you are either incapable of work or you are at a level where full-time work would be very difficult. One advantage many veterans with high disability ratings is that, while VA only considers service-connected disabilities, the SSA will consider all impairments, whether they are service-related or not.
Because of the similarity between a VA finding of unemployability and what it means to be disabled under the Social Security disability program, it is the rule in many federal circuit courts that VA disability ratings are entitled to “great weight.” (See McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072 (9th Cir. 2002); Chambliss v. Massanari, 269 F.3d 520, 522 (5th Cir. 2001); Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 921 (11th Cir. 1984); and De Loatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 n.1 (4th Cir. 1983).) And one circuit court said that VA disability ratings were entitled to “substantial weight.” (Kane v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 1130, 1135 (3d Cir. 1985).) In addition, Social Security Ruling 06-3p says that the decision and the evidence used to make the VA decision “may provide insight into the individual’s mental and physical impairment(s) and show the degree of disability determined by these agencies based on their rules." All of this comes down to the fact that Social Security should strongly consider that you were approved for disability benefits in making its decision on benefits.
Social Security approval does not necessarily help get VA benefits. Unfortunately, if you are disabled under SSA rules, the VA may not give Social Security's decision as much weight, since it's not usually clear whether the disability is based on service-connected or non-service disabilities. Many veterans have a wide array of both types of disabilities, and the VA can be quick to attribute total disability to a host of non-service disabilities. The VA must be able to make a specific finding on what disabilities prevent employability. To convince the WA that the disability was caused by service-connected impairments, a veteran may need to hire a Vocational Expert to specifically attribute the unemployability to service-related disabilities.
Even so, the VA should be provided with the entire SSD file and decision (the VA has a duty to request it), since this could provide key evidence for your VA claim. (See Brown v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 444, 448 (1992); Murincsak v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 363, 370-72 (1992); see also Beaty v. Brown, 6 Vet. App. 532, 538 (1994).) Although a Social Security Disability decision is given no special deference, the VA is required to consider SSD records. (One court said "As part of the Secretary’s obligation to review a thorough and complete record, VA is required to obtain evidence from the Social Security Administration, including any decisions by the administrative law judge, and give that evidence appropriate consideration and weight." (Murincsak v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 363, 372 (1992).)
For more information on applying for Social Security disability, see our section on disability benefits for veterans.