The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers disability compensation for wounded veterans who can establish that their disabling condition was service-connected. Social Security administers two disability programs, SSDI and SSI, that are available to veterans who are no longer able to work as a result of their condition. Veterans may be eligible for both VA and Social Security benefits, but it's not a guarantee that having even a 100% VA disability rating will qualify you for SSDI or SSI.
The main difference between VA disability and Social Security disability is that the VA uses a percentage rating system to determine a veteran's degree of disability, while Social Security is all-or-nothing—you're either disabled or you aren't. This can sometimes cause confusion when veterans who've already received a 100% disability rating from the VA apply for SSDI benefits and run into a different set of rules.
Veterans are eligible for disability benefits if they currently have a medically diagnosed disease or disability caused by an incident during active military, naval, or air service. The VA reviews a veteran's medical records to assign the veteran a disability rating, which is measured in 10% increments ranging from 10% disabled to 100% (totally) disabled.
Social Security disability benefits are available for anybody who meets the financial eligibility requirements for SSDI or SSI and who have a medical condition that keeps them from working full-time for at least one year. Unlike the VA, Social Security doesn't rate disabling impairments according to a percentage system. Instead, the agency needs to see that your conditions prevent you from returning to your past work or doing any other jobs.
Since 2017, Social Security doesn't have to take into account VA service-connected disability ratings when determining whether a veteran is disabled under Social Security's definition. Before then, the agency did generally give certain special consideration ("weight") to veterans who had a high VA disability rating, like 100%. But the amount of weight given to VA decisions varied by circuit court ruling, so there was a geographical disparity between veterans in one part of the country who might have their VA ratings carry more weight than veterans in another.
In 2017, Social Security changed its rules, stating that the agency would no longer analyze decisions made by other governmental entities—such as the VA—when making a disability determination. (20 CFR § 404.1504.) However, the rules allowed Social Security to consider all underlying medical evidence that the VA used to assign a rating when making a determination on an SSDI claim.
The takeaway lesson from Bird v. Berryhill is to make sure that Social Security has all of your medical records from the VA. This can include records from VA hospitals, laboratory findings, and therapists' notes. If Bird had initially provided the judge with the X-rays and MRIs that the VA used to rate his service-connected disability, the judge might have decided that Bird was disabled under Social Security's own rules.
If you have a VA rating of 100% P&T (permanent and total), Social Security will fast-track your decision, even though you may not get approved for disability benefits. When you apply for benefits, identify yourself as a "veteran rated 100% P&T."
If you're rated 100% disabled without being classified as permanent, you won't qualify for this program. Learn more about expedited decisions for veterans with lower disability ratings.
As mentioned above, nothing in the case law or Social Security regulations require the agency to award SSDI or SSI benefits to veterans receiving disability compensation. So even if you've been approved for disability through the VA, you won't automatically be approved for Social Security disability.
In practice, however, veterans with high VA disability ratings are more likely to have medical evidence strong enough to qualify them for Social Security disability. While a veteran with a 100% rating due to Agent Orange exposure isn't automatically eligible for Social Security, the same medical evidence that qualified the veteran for such a high rating is likely going to establish that the veteran has limitations that rule out all jobs. (For more information, see our article on how Social Security decides if you can work.)
Before you apply for SSDI or SSI, gather some records to make sure you have the following information at hand:
Even if you don't have all the necessary information together, you should still file your application as soon as possible. Remember, the longer it takes you to provide all the necessary information to the agency, the longer a decision will take in your case. Make sure that you notify Social Security if your address changes so you don't miss important notices or deadlines.
Updated November 15, 2023