A United States Armed Forces veteran who was injured during service and suffers from a resulting disease or disability may be eligible to receive veterans disability benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Veterans Disability Benefits
Veterans disability benefits consist of monthly monetary payments to the veteran from the U.S. government. The payment amount is dependent upon the veteran's degree of disability (a higher degree of disability correlates to a higher monthly payment.) In addition to monthly payments, veterans disability benefits may include travel expenses for rehabilitation or treatment. Federal or state governments are not allowed to tax a veterans' disability compensation.
Permanently and totally disabled, low-income veterans older than 65 are also eligible for Disability Pension, a needs-based program that supplements the veteran's income. In order to qualify for this benefit, the veteran must have served 90 days in active service and one day or more during war (or longer, for those who entered service after September 1980).
Who May Apply
To be eligible to apply for veterans disability benefits, one must be a veteran of U.S. military service, an active service member with an impending discharge between 180 and 60 daysthrough the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program (BDD), or an active service member within 60 days of impending discharge through the BDD Quick Start claim process.
Additionally, for a veteran to qualify for veterans disability benefits, the veteran must meet all of the following criteria:
The veteran must have a disease or disability diagnosed .
There must have been an incident during the veteran's active service, and
The disability must be "service-connected," meaning that there must be a proven causal connection between the incident and the disability or the disability must be on the presumed connection list (more on this below).
The Application Process
In order to receive veterans disability benefits, the veteran must file VA Form 21-526, the Veteran’s Application for Compensation and/or Pension. This form may be downloaded from the Department of Veterans Affaris website at www.va.gov/vaforms/ and submitted to the closest VA Regional Office, or the form may be filled out online on the Veterans Online Application (VONAPP) website at www.ebenefits.va.gov.
The veteran must also provide a DD214 (separation or discharge paperwork) for all periods of service along with copies of medical records, evidence of the claimed disability, and evidence showing the disability or disease was caused by active service. Additionally, the veteran must submit copies of marriage certificates and divorce records, birth or adoption records for all dependent children, and, if applicable, nursing home records.
Active service members approaching discharge and applying for benefits through the BDD process must also submit to a medical separation examination and submit all related paperwork to the VA.
The Amount of Veterans' Benefits
Once this paperwork has been submitted, the file will be reviewed by the VA's Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). The BVA will determine whether or not the veteran qualifies for disability benefits. If he or she does qualify for benefits, the BVA assigns the veteran's disability a rating ranging from 10 to 100% in 10% increments. The percentage rating directly correlates to a pre-determined monthly payment amount laid by law. For example, a veteran determined to be 10% disabled would receive $123 per month, while a veteran who is 50% disabled would receive $770 per month. A 100% disabled veteran would receive $2,673 monthly payment.
In addition, if a veteran is deemed to be 30% or more disabled and has a spouse and/or dependent children, the monthly payment is higher. Additionally, for certain more serious injuries or disabilities, such as blindness or loss of a limb, the disabled veteran would be entitled to receive a higher monthly compensation.
For more information on disability ratings and payments, see our article on how veterans disability ratings work.
The Service-Connection Requirement
As noted earlier, for a veteran to qualify for disability benefits, his disease or disability must be service-connected, meaning that the veteran's active service (or an incident/injury during active service) caused or helped to cause the disability.
There are three different types of service connections: direct service connection, aggravated injury connection, and presumed service connection.
Direct Service Connection
A direct service connection occurs when the disability occurred directly due to military service, such as the loss of eyesight due to an in-combat injury. In such cases, the veteran must show evidence of his current disability, evidence of the incident that caused the disease or injury, and medical evidence that the occurrence caused the current disability or disease.
Aggravated Service Connection
An aggravated service connection can be established in cases where a veteran entered military service with a pre-existing condition that is noted in his or her entrance medical exam and can provide evidence that active military service or an incident during service aggravated that condition.
Presumed Service Connection
A presumed service connection can be established when a veteran (who has served at least 90 days) develops a disability or condition of a 10% degree or greater that is presumed to be related to active service. Federal law lists the disabilites and illnesses that are presumed to result from active military service, including certain chronic illnesses, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, Hansen's disease, and certain tropical illnesses. The disability must appear within a certain amount of time after active service (the lengths of time vary by type of disease/disability).
POWs. Veterans who were prisoners of war suffering from conditions such as frostbite, anxiety, or post-traumatic osteoarthritis are presumed to have a service connection between military service and the disability. Those who were prisoners of war for more than 30 days are presumed to have a service connection if they develop conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer disease, malnutrition, chronic dysentery, osteoporosis, or liver cirrhosis.
Cancer. Veterans exposed to radiation during active service (for example, during nuclear testing) who later develop certain cancers are presumed to meet the service connection criteria. Likewise, veterans exposed to herbicide agents (such as Agent Orange) during active service who suffer from specific diseases and disabilities (including some forms of soft-tissue sarcoma, Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, some forms of respiratory cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, and Parkinson’s disease) are presumed to meet the service connection requirement.
Gulf war. Chronic health problems and symptoms lasting longer than six months may also be presumptively service-connected for veterans who served in the Gulf conflict.
Rebuttal of evidence. For any presumed service connection, the VA can bring evidence to prove that another cause exists (such as an injury that occurred after the veteran left active service) that resulted in the disease or disability.
The VA has streamlined rules for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, so that a veteran applying for disability benefits for PTSD does not need to provide evidence of the traumatic event that caused the PTSD. As long as the veteran has a PTSD diagnosis related to a traumatic event that a VA psychiatrist or psychologist confirms was enough to cause PTSD, and the event is related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity and is likely to have happened during the veteran’s service, the veteran will be granted benefits. For more information, see our article on veterans disability benefits for PTSD.
Causes of Ineligibility for Disability Benefits
In certain circumstances, a veteran will not be eligible to receive disability benefits. These circumstances include:
- The veteran's disease or disability was caused by the veteran's misconduct.
- The veteran was dishonorably discharged.
- The injury occurred while the veteran was avoiding duty; for example, while deserting or absent without leave (AWOL).
- The injury occurred while the veteran/service member was in prison or detained due to court martial or civil court felony.
Veterans can hire an attorney to act as the veteran's representative, and several veterans service organizations (VSOs) exist that can provide the veteran with a representative to assist in filing a veterans' disability claim. You can find a VSO on the VA's website or use our disability attorney locator.