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.
An award of VA disability benefits, also known as service-connected disability compensation, 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 also 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 pay more generous benefits than VA pension and SSI, but you should be aware of the other needs-based programs.
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 even have a rating as low as 0%. (In many cases, it's beneficial to get a 0% rating even though its not compensable, because the veteran will at least have proven a service-connected disability. If it deteriorates into a more serious problem, it can 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 Social Security's definition of disability. (For more information, see Social Security disability basics.)
In the past, another difference between the two programs was due to Social Security's "treating physician rule." Until March 27, 2017, a "treating physician's" medical opinion was generally given a great deal of weight. In VA law, the treating doctor's opinion is not given deferential weight, because of the important VA principle that decisions be based on the entire file, so as not to give any particular evidence extra weight. After March 27, 2017, neither program gives deference to the opinions of a treating physician.
Does having one benefit make getting the other benefit any easier? Overall, the answer is maybe; it depends on your circumstances.
VA approval does not help get Social Security disability. In the past, if you were the recipient of a very high VA rating (70% or higher), your chances for success on your Social Security disability claim were quite good. In past decisions, federal circuit courts found that VA disability ratings were entitled to “great weight.”
In 2017, Social Security published new regulations saying that Social Security will no longer take VA approvals for disability compensation into account when deciding whether to grant disability benefits. In addition, written denials or hearing decisions from Social Security will no longer provide any information on whether the agency considered the VA's approval in its determination.
Social Security will, however, consider any evidence that the VA took into account in making its own disability determination. The VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) share medical records electronically with Social Security, which will use the evidence in evaluating its applications for Social Security disability insurance and SSI. Social Security may also use VA or DOD evidence to expedite processing of claims for Wounded Warriors and veterans with a 100% disability compensation rating.
Social Security approval does not necessarily help get VA benefits. If you are disabled under SSA rules, the VA may not give Social Security's decision 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. Also, a veteran must be able to show specifically which disabilities prevent employability. To convince the VA that the veteran is unemployable and that his or her 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.
Although the VA will give a Social Security disability decision no special deference, the VA is required to consider Social Security records. Medical records in your Social Security file could provide key evidence for your VA claim. The VA should be provided with the entire Social Security disability file and decision; in fact, the VA has a duty to request it. (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."
For more information on applying for Social Security disability, see our article on disability benefits for veterans.