When a veteran applies for disability benefits, the Veteran’s Administration (VA) assigns each disabling condition a rating that determines how much compensation is paid. Disability ratings are intended to reflect the average reduction in earning capacity caused by any given condition.
The VA uses an extensive list, known as the ratings schedule, to assign disability ratings. The ratings schedule lists conditions by an assigned number, or diagnostic code, grouped by areas of the body. If a condition is not listed in the ratings schedule, a VA ratings specialist assigns a rating based on criteria of a closely related disease or injury.
Each diagnostic code has a corresponding list of disability ratings. For each possible rating, the ratings schedule provides the types of symptoms and effects a condition must have to warrant assignment of that rating. Some ratings are based on specific medical test results, such as measuring the range of motion of a joint. A higher disability rating indicates the veteran has an impairment of greater severity and should get greater compensation.
Ratings range from 0% to 100%, generally increasing in increments of 10. A 0% rating is also known as a non-compensable rating, because no compensation is paid when that rating is assigned. A 100% disability rating means the individual is totally disabled.
A ratings specialist assigns a rating by comparing descriptions of an individual’s disability to the criteria listed in the rating schedule. The VA may request a veteran attend a doctor's examination to assess the severity of a disability. Any other relevant medical records will also be considered. If a disability that existed prior to active service was aggravated by serving, a rating will be assigned only for the degree of disability that was caused by serving.
The effects of a disease or injury on an individual may not precisely match the criteria listed in the ratings schedule. A VA regulation provides that, when either of two ratings could possibly apply, the higher of two ratings will be assigned. Additionally, an “extra-schedular” rating may be assigned when a listed disability rating for a given condition does not adequately account for all effects of the condition, such as interference with employment or frequent hospitalizations.
When a veteran is entitled to compensation for multiple disabilities, compensation will be based on a combined disability rating. The disability ratings for individual conditions are not simply added together. Ratings are instead combined according to a formula, which first considers the veteran’s most disabling condition and then the additional effects of less disabling conditions in order of severity.
Under certain conditions, a veteran will be found totally disabled based on his or her inability to work, even though the criteria for a 100% rating are not met. This type of rating is referred to as "total disability based on individual unemployability" (TDIU). Entitlement to TDIU requires having either:
Additionally, veterans who do not have disabilities meeting these exact percentages may still be considered for total disability if they are unable to work.
A total disability rating may also be assigned during hospital treatment or observation that lasts for longer than 21 days or for periods of convalescence (recovery) following surgery or placement of a cast.
At any time your disability has worsened, you can file a claim for an increased rating. Seeking regular medical treatment will be helpful in documenting changes in your disability.
You can also appeal the initial assignment of a disability rating by filing a Notice of Disagreement with your VA Regional Office within one year of the Rating Decision that assigned the rating. For more information, see our article on appealing a veterans disability claim.