Why Did the VA Reduce My Disability Benefits?

Here are the rules for when the VA can reduce a veteran's disability rating and benefits.

By , Attorney · Northeastern University School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

It's frustrating, after years of fighting for and finally getting VA disability compensation, to suddenly find that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is going to reduce your disability benefits. You might have believed that the monthly payment from the VA wouldn't change. But that's a misconception.

There are times when the VA can and will lower a veteran's disability rating—which means smaller monthly compensation payments. Below are some of the more common reasons the VA might reduce your disability benefits.

When Can the VA Lower Your Disability Rating?

Many veterans with service-connected disabilities mistakenly think they'll have the same VA disability rating—and the corresponding disability benefits—for life. But there are times when the VA can reduce your disability compensation rating and benefit amount.

Unprotected VA Benefit Ratings Can Be Reduced

Generally, the VA can reduce your monthly disability compensation if you have an "unprotected rate" and your medical condition has improved. (More on the procedures the VA uses to reduce your disability rating below.)

You have an unprotected disability rating if:

  • you have a disability rating that's above the minimum for your disability but below 100%, or
  • you've been receiving VA disability compensation benefits for less than five years.

Not all medical conditions are permanent. Some improve with time. If you have an unprotected disability rating and your medical condition has improved on more than a temporary basis, your benefits will likely be reduced.

Jail: Your VA Disability Can Be Reduced If You're Incarcerated

The VA might reduce your disability compensation if you're in a federal, state, or local prison (or jail) for a felony—depending on how long you're incarcerated. After your 61st day in prison, the VA will reduce or terminate your disability compensation benefits.

If you had a service-connected disability rated at 20% or higher before being incarcerated, the VA could reduce your monthly benefit to the 10% rate. If you received compensation for a disability rated at 10%, your payment would be cut in half.

But the VA won't reduce your disability compensation if, after 60 days in prison, you:

  • are released to a halfway house or work release program
  • are paroled, or
  • have completed serving your sentence.

If the VA reduces or terminates your disability compensation benefits because you're in prison, you can get them reinstated upon your release (including work release and parole).

The VA Will Terminate Your Disability Benefits If It Finds Fraud

No matter what your disability rating is or how long you've been receiving benefits, if the VA determines that you intentionally misrepresented your symptoms to get disability compensation, your benefits will be terminated. You'll likely have to repay any money you received, and you could face criminal charges.

When Are Your VA Disability Benefits Protected?

While there's no such thing as a truly "protected" disability rating, the VA is much less likely to decrease some ratings. Under 38 CFR § 3.327 (b)(2), your rating could be considered "protected" if one or more of the following is true:

  • You're over 55.
  • You have a "permanent" disability (one that won't improve), such as the loss of a limb.
  • You've been receiving benefits for more than five years at the same level without a reduction in your disability rating (called a "stabilized" rating).
  • You've had the disability for 10 years or more (the VA can reduce your rating but not terminate your benefits).
  • You've been receiving VA disability benefits continuously for more than 20 years.
  • You're rated as totally disabled (a 100% disability rating).

Protected benefit rates can still be reduced, but it's much more difficult for the VA to decrease protected disability ratings.

Same Disability Rating for at Least 5 Years

If you've had the same disability rating for five years or more (called a stabilized rating), the VA can't reduce your disability rating without proving that you've had a "sustained" (and likely permanent) improvement in your medical condition. And the VA can't rely solely on one reexamination report as evidence. The VA must review your entire medical history in your service and post-service treatment records and all the employment records in your VA claims file.

Service-Connected Disability Protection After 10 Years

The VA can't terminate a service-connected disability rating that you've had for at least 10 years unless one of the following is true.

  • There's enough evidence to prove that the rating was based on fraud.
  • Your military records clearly show that you didn't have the required service or the right type of discharge.

Additionally, if your condition has improved long-term, the VA can lower your disability rating and reduce your benefits even if you've been rated for that condition for 10 years.

Protection for Continuous Rating After 20 Years

If you've had a VA disability rating for at least 20 years, it's considered a "continuous rating," and your benefits are protected. The VA can't reduce your disability rating below the lowest rating you've had during those 20 years unless the VA can show that the rating was obtained by fraud.

For example, let's say that 20 years ago, the VA initially rated you as 60% disabled due to a service-connected back injury. Your back worsened a few years ago, and your disability rating was increased to 80%. Even if your condition improves again, the VA can't lower your disability rating below 60% (the lowest rating you had during the 20 years).

Protection for 100% VA Disability Ratings

If you have a 100% disability rating, the VA can reduce your rating only if there's a "material improvement" in your medical condition. To be material, the improvement must involve more than a lessening of symptoms or temporary remission. To find that there's been a "material improvement," the VA must:

  • compare the exam that led to your 100% rating to the pre-reduction exam
  • consider your entire medical history surrounding the disabling disease or injury (including reports from your private health care providers), and
  • determine whether your ability to "function under the conditions of daily life" has changed (enough that you can now work).

The VA must meet all these criteria to find there's been a material improvement in your condition. And even if your condition has materially improved, if your service-connected disability still keeps you from working, you're entitled to keep the 100% disability rating (based on individual unemployability).

One important note: The VA can make the mistake of reducing a 100% rating just because the reexamination report says your current symptoms are consistent with a lower impairment level. But this is an error because the VA is required to consider more than just the reexamination to change your rating.

How the VA Reduces Disability Ratings After Reexamination

If the VA expects your disability to improve over time, you'll likely face your first reexamination two to five years after your disability compensation is granted. The VA can also order a reexamination whenever there's evidence that your condition has improved. For instance, if your cancer is in remission, the VA can reevaluate your disability rating.

But before the VA can lower your disability rating or reduce your benefits, it must send you a letter explaining that your rating is being reevaluated. If your rating or benefits are reduced without such a letter, you can get them reinstated.

The letter will tell you that you must have a VA reexamination and will let you know when and where the reexamination will take place. A reexamination is usually a medical exam in a doctor's office, but it can include a hospital stay for evaluation.

If you can't attend the reexamination, you'll need to contact the VA (by calling the phone number in the letter) and request to reschedule the exam. If you don't reschedule and don't show up, the VA can and likely will terminate or reduce your disability compensation.

After the reevaluation exam, the VA will review the doctor's report to determine if your medical condition has improved. If VA finds that your condition has improved, your disability rating will likely be reduced, subject to the rules above.

For more information, see our article VA reexaminations to reduce disability benefits.

What Should You Do If the VA Decreases Your Benefits?

If you get a letter from the VA indicating that your disability rating and benefits are being reduced and you disagree, you need to take action right away. (If you receive a letter asking you to attend a VA examination to evaluate your rating, the VA probably doesn't think your file contains enough evidence to support paying you benefits at their current rate.)

First, don't miss the pre-reduction examination, as this alone can be a basis for the VA to reduce your monthly benefits. The VA is required to send you notice of the reexamination. If you don't have the notice, check with the VA to see if a re-examination appointment has been scheduled.

Second, appeal the decision. There are three ways to appeal the decision:

  • file a supplemental claim
  • request a higher-level review, or
  • appeal to the Board of Veterans' Appeals to have a veterans law judge review your case.

If you aren't satisfied with the results of the review option you choose, you can try another. If you exhaust all your review options, you can take your case to the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Here's a brief summary of the three ways to appeal a reduction in benefits.

File a Supplemental Claim With the VA

You can file a supplemental claim if you have new evidence to submit. The VA will help you gather medical records it doesn't already have. According to the VA, it takes about 125 days (around 4 months) to get a decision on a supplemental claim.

Ask the VA for a Higher-Level Review

If you don't have new evidence but believe errors were made in the VA's most recent decision, you can request that a more experienced claims adjuster review your case. You can't submit new evidence, but you (or your representative) can request an informal conference with the new reviewer to point out the errors in your case.

Taking Your Case to the Board of Veterans' Appeals

Appealing to the Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA) is the longest of the appeal process and can take a couple of years to complete. If you choose to appeal to the Board, you'll have three options:

  • Get a direct review if you don't have new evidence to submit and don't want to have a hearing.
  • Choose evidence submission if you don't want a hearing but plan to submit new evidence (with your Notice of Disagreement (NOD) or within 90 days after the VA receives your NOD).
  • Request a hearing if you want to have a hearing with a veterans law judge and you want the opportunity to submit additional evidence. You can submit new evidence at the hearing or within 90 days after the hearing.

Should You Get an Attorney to Appeal a VA Disability Reduction?

The short answer is usually yes. A veterans lawyer or Veteran Service Organization can stop the reduction process or help ensure you have a better chance of later reversing the reduction at a BVA hearing. How a veterans attorney will approach your case depends on whether you have a protected or unprotected rating.

If you have a protected rating and your benefits have been reduced, you'll need a veterans' attorney to help you. It's supposed to be very difficult for the VA to change a protected rating legitimately. A disability attorney can find the legal errors the VA made and improve your chances of getting your rating reinstated.

If you have an unprotected rating and your benefits were reduced, you'll also likely benefit from consulting a veteran's attorney. There are legal requirements the VA must adhere to before reducing your disability benefits, such as:

  • keeping you notified of what you need to do to keep your benefits, and
  • properly evaluating your medical records.

A VA-certified attorney can assess your situation and determine if the VA made an error in lowering your rating and reducing your benefits. A veterans' lawyer knows what type of appeal will have the best chance of getting your disability compensation reinstated.

Learn more about how to find a VA-accredited attorney on the Veterans Administration website.

Updated September 14, 2023

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