How Do Disability Ratings Work for Veterans Benefits?

The VA uses a disability rating system to determine the amount of compensation provided to disabled military veterans. Here's how VA disability works.

If you're a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, and you have a disability connected to or aggravated by your active military service, you might be eligible for veterans disability compensation. After you've applied for benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) evaluates the medical evidence and determines whether or not you qualify for compensation.

If the VA determines that you have one or more disabilities, the agency assigns each disability a rating percentage. Your disability rating level dictates the amount of your disability pay. Here's what you need to know about how VA disability ratings work and how your rating affects your disability benefits.

How VA Disability Ratings Work

First, to qualify for veterans disability compensation, you must be a U.S. military veteran and you must meet the following criteria:

  • you have an other than honorable discharge (or expect one within the next 90 to 180 days)
  • you've been diagnosed with a medical condition or illness, and
  • your condition or illness is "service-connected," which means your disability was caused by or made worse by your military service.

Learn more about the eligibility requirements for service-connected disability compensation.

How Does the VA Set Your Disability Rating?

The VA has established a Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD) to assign percentages to your medical condition(s). The VA will use the medical evidence in your case file to rate your disability, including any of the following:

  • VA medical records of any tests and treatment you received during or after service
  • private medical records from:
    • doctors who've diagnosed and/or treated you
    • hospitals and clinics where you've been treated, and
    • laboratories and other medical testing centers.

The VA might also send you for a Compensation and Pension (C&P) exam, where a VA doctor will examine you and write a report based on that exam and the information in your case file. The C&P report can have a big impact on the VA's disability determination and the rating your receive.

How Does the VA Decide on a Disability Percentage?

Once your medical evidence is gathered, the VA will evaluate your condition based on the percentages laid out in the VASRD. The VA will start at the body system category, locate your diagnosis, and then find the diagnostic code that best matches your symptoms. If more than one code applies, the VA must use the one that will give you the highest rating.

For example, let's say you have sleep apnea that was caused by a service-related injury or illness. That would fall under the respiratory system category. In that category, there are four groups:

  • diseases of the nose and throat
  • diseases of the trachea and bronchi
  • tuberculosis, and
  • non-tuberculosis diseases.

Under non-tuberculosis diseases, the schedule has four subcategories:

  • bacterial infections of the lung
  • interstitial lung disease
  • mycotic lung disease, and
  • restrictive lung disease.

Under restrictive lung disease, there are eight diagnoses with diagnostic codes:

  • 6840 diaphragm paralysis or paresis
  • 6841 spinal cord injury with respiratory insufficiency
  • 6842 kyphoscoliosis, pectus excavatum, pectus carinatum
  • 6843 traumatic chest wall defect, pneumothorax, hernia, etc
  • 6844 post-surgical residual (lobectomy, pneumonectomy, etc.)
  • 6845 chronic pleural effusion or fibrosis
  • 6846 sarcoidosis, and
  • 6847 sleep apnea syndromes (obstructive, central, mixed).

Finally, under the diagnostic code 6847 sleep apnea syndromes, four different ratings are offered based on the severity of the symptoms:

  • chronic respiratory failure with carbon dioxide retention or cor pulmonale (enlargement of the heart) or requiring tracheostomy: 100%
  • requires the use of a breathing assistance device such as a continuous airway pressure (CPAP) machine: 50%
  • persistent day-time hypersomnolence (excessive sleepiness): 30%
  • asymptomatic but with documented sleep disorder breathing: 0%

For example, if you have sleep apnea because of a service-related injury or illness, and you must use a CPAP machine at night, you're disability rating for this respiratory disorder would be 50%. But if you had to have a tracheostomy because of your sleep apnea (rare), you'd receive a 100% (total) disability rating.

What Does Your Disability Rating Mean?

The disability rating VA assigns represents the "average detriment to your earning capacity" resulting from the disability or disease. In other words, it's how much less you can earn from work because of your service-connected disability.

The ratings are assigned in 10% increments, ranging from 10% to 100% disabled. A higher disability rating indicates you have a more severe disability and can't be expected to work as much as someone with a lower rating.

How VA Disability Ratings Affect Your Benefits

The VA uses your disability rating to calculate how much your benefits will be. The more severe your disability is, the higher your monthly disability payment will be.

For example, under the current rates (effective in 2024), a veteran with a 10% disability rating is entitled to receive $171.23 per month, while a veteran with a 20% rating would get $338.49 each month.

But some disabled veterans with dependents can receive a higher benefit amount. To qualify for a larger monthly payment from the VA, you must have the following:

  • dependents, including your:
    • spouse
    • children, or
    • parents, and
  • a disability rating of 30% or more.

For example, let's say you're a veteran with a 50% disability rating. If you have no dependents, you'd be entitled to disabled veterans benefits of $1,075.16 per month (in 2024).

Your VA disability benefits increase with each dependent you have. For instance, if you have a 50% rating and a dependent spouse, your monthly benefits would be $1,179.16. If you also have one dependent child, your basic monthly benefit rate would jump to $1,255.16. The VA will generally add more to your monthly disability benefits for the following:

  • each additional dependent child (including each child over 18 in a qualifying school program)
  • each dependent parent, and
  • a spouse receiving "aid and attendance" benefits.

The maximum base rate for a veteran with a 100% (or total) disability rating and no dependents is $3,877.22 per month. The highest base rate for a veteran with a 100% rating and a dependent spouse, child, and two dependent parents is $4,433.39 per month. And all VA disability benefits are subject to an annual cost of living adjustment (COLA), increasing at the same COLA rate as Social Security.

Some Disabilities Qualify for Special Monthly Compensation

In addition to basic VA disability benefits, the law provides "special monthly compensation" (SMC) for certain very serious disabilities or injuries. For instance, your VA disability pay will increase by $132.74 per month per injury for impairments like:

  • loss of a single hand or foot
  • blindness or severe injury to one eye
  • loss of the ability to speak, and
  • deafness.

For example, let's say the VA has rated you as 50% disabled, you have a dependent spouse but no children, and you're SMC-rated due to the loss of your foot. You'd qualify for your base rate ($1,179.16) plus the SMC-K addition of $132.74 for a total of $1,311.90 per month.

The more serious your injuries are, the higher your SMC rate will be. For instance, if you've had both feet amputated, you'd be rated as SMC-L. If you have a dependent spouse but no children, your base rate would be $4,859.46 per month (in 2024)—no matter what your disability rating is.

But if you've had both legs amputated so close to the hip that you can't wear a prosthesis, you'd have an SMC-N rating. With a dependent spouse, the base rate for an SMC-N is $6,047.48 per month.

How Does the VA Rate Multiple Disabilities?

If you have more than one service-related disease or disability, your disability ratings aren't simply added together. For example, a 40% disability rating plus a 20% disability rating doesn't equal a 60% disability rating—at least not at the VA.

Instead, the VA uses a formula to calculate your total disability rating level when you have more than one disabling condition.

How the VA Calculates Your Rating for Two Disabilities

First, the disabilities are ranked from most to least severe. Then, the VA determines the percentage of efficiency you retain after the first, most severe disability.

For example, if your most severe disability is rated at 40%, you'd still be considered 60% efficient. After that, the second most severe disability is considered. That second disability rating is applied to your remaining 60% efficiency.

So if your second most severe disability has a 20% disability rating, the VA would calculate 20% of your 60% efficiency, which is 12%. The VA would then add 12% to your original 40% disability rating (40 + 12 = 52), giving you a 52% rating.

But your new disability rating is rounded up or down to the closer 10% increment. In the example above, your 52% rating would be rounded down to a 50% disability rating, and you'd be considered 50% disabled. (Had your calculated rating been 55%, it would've been rounded up to a 60% disability rating.)

What If You Have More Than Two Rated Disabilites?

If the VA has rated three or more impairments, you'll use the same formula as above but apply it to each rated disability from the most severe to the least. For this example, let's say you have three disabilities rated at 60%, 40%, and 20%. Again, you can't just add them together and get 120%. You must apply the formula from above.

First, you determine your remaining efficiency after the most severe disability (rated at 60%), which would be 40% (because 100 – 60 = 40%). Next, you'd apply the second most serious rating to your remaining 40% efficiency (40% of 40% is 16%). And you'd add 16% to the original 60%, giving you a 76% rating for your first two disabilities combined.

To account for that third disability rated at 20%, you'd apply it to your remaining efficiency of 24% (100 – 76 = 24). Then use the same formula as above: 20% (your third disability rating) of 24% (your remaining efficiency) is 4.8% (rounded up to 5%).

Finally, you add that 5% to the 76% rating to get 81%—the result is rounded down to 80%. So with these three disabilities, the VA would rate you as 80% disabled.

But if you don't want to do all the math, you can use the VA's combined ratings table. Find where the higher disability rating (in the column on the left) crosses with the lower rating (across the top), and that's your combined rating.

Reexamination and Changes to Disability Ratings

Once your disability rating is assigned, it could change in certain circumstances. For example, the VA might require you to have a medical re-examination six months after leaving service and then again between two and five years later.

The VA requires reexaminations to verify that you're still disabled and that your disability hasn't improved. You're more likely to face reexamination if any of the following is true:

  • your disability is likely to have improved
  • evidence indicates there's been a material change in your disability, or
  • there's evidence that the current rating might be incorrect.

In such cases, it's possible that your rating and benefits could be reduced or discontinued. But you're not likely to face re-examination if any of the following apply to your case:

  • the VA determined at the outset that your disability is permanent
  • your disability hasn't sustainably improved in five years, or
  • you're older than 55, and your rating wouldn't be changed by reexamination.

If you're already receiving veterans disability benefits and your condition has worsened, or you've developed a new service-related disability, you can ask the VA to increase your disability rating. You'd need to file VA Form 21-4138 to request a new evaluation. If the VA increases your disability rating, your monthly compensation will also increase.

When Your VA Disability Benefits Can't Be Reduced

Although the VA can sometimes reduce your disability benefits after a reexamination that finds your condition has improved, this isn't always the case. There are some times when your VA benefits can't be reduced.

If you have a 100% disabled rating, the VA can't reduce your rating except in specific circumstances. Your 100% rating can't be reduced unless there's a medical examination or evidence of your ability to maintain employment for 12 consecutive months that shows "material improvement" in your physical or mental condition.

And if you've been deemed to have permanent and total disability and you've been receiving disability benefits for twenty years or more, your benefits can't be reduced.

Even if the VA lowers your disability rating after a re-examination, if you've been receiving disability benefits for twenty years or more, your compensation won't drop below the original level. For example, suppose you've had a 40% disability rating for twenty or more continuous years, and you're later re-evaluated as 30% disabled. Because you've been collecting disability for so long, your benefit amount won't drop below the 40% compensation rate.

Appealing a Low Rating or a Denial of Disability Benefits

If you disagree with your disability rating or the VA denied your disability claim, you can challenge the VA's decision. You'll benefit from consulting a disability lawyer certified with the VA. Learn more about appealing a denied VA disability claim.

While you're waiting for VA benefits, you might be able to get approved for collect Social Security disability benefits, if you're severely disabled. Learn more about how veterans disability benefits relate to Social Security disability benefits.

Updated December 28, 2023

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