The A - Z Guide: Veterans VA Disability Benefits
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How To File A Claim For VA Disability Benefits

How To File A Claim The VAWatchdog Way...and Win!

How To File A Claim

At any point after a veteran has completed military service and he or she believes that military service has caused an injury or illness (called a "condition" by the VA) or that a preexisting condition was aggravated by military service, the veteran may file an application for disability compensation.

There are no time limits or restrictions except in a few very limited circumstances. As a rule, the veteran may seek disability compensation for any condition they reasonably believe was caused or aggravated by their service at any time.

The initial filing of a claim for disability benefits is simple. The veteran may file the appropriate forms himself or he may seek representation and assistance from an accredited Veterans Service Officer who will likely work for a Veterans Service Organization. At this stage of the process, the veteran is not allowed to pay anyone to represent them. In practice, this means that a veteran who wants to have someone representative him or her will likely use the services of a VSO, as very few attorneys work on preparing initial claims.

More about representation follows later. For the purposes of this chapter, we will assume that veterans who read on are interested in filing the claim for themselves.

Update 07/2014

Is this your first or original claim? Keep reading.

Have you ever completed the VA Form 21-526? If you are already in the system (having once completed the VA Form 21-526), you do not have to complete the VA Form 21-526 again.

You may proceed to file a new claim for a new disability by notifying your VA regional office in writing. A simple letter will do the trick.

If you have existing ratings but you feel they should be higher, click here.

Prior to filing your claim you should consider some of the basic elements that are required to obtain an award of benefits. 

(1) You must be eligible. In other words, you must have served and possess a discharge that is other than dishonorable. If your discharge is other than honorable but not dishonorable, there may be restrictions on the type of benefits you may receive.

(2) You must have an current injury or illness (condition) that can be attributed to your service. This means that you should have a fairly clear diagnosis in a medical record prepared by a qualified health care provider, preferrably a physician. The more precisely defined the condition is in the record, the better it is for your application for benefits.

(3) You must have evidence to support your claim. The strongest evidence is that of an event that is recorded in a Service Medical Record (SMR) and a detailed description of the cause of the injury or illness leading to the condition, as well as how it was treated and any residual effects of the event. If the condition is related to a non-combat related event, documentation of the accident or incident that caused a condition (such as a broken bone), documentation of an admission to a military or other hospital, a record of treatment and follow-up care.  Not everthing is required for every claim, but the more supporting evidence, the better chance of an award.

(4) Your medical evidence must be clear enought to prove to VA that your current condition is connected to the in-service event - this is called "service connection" or "nexus."  Without a service connection, all the evdence in the world of a current medical condition and an event in service will not result in an award of benefits.

I suggest that you consider another set of requirements before you file a claim for yourself. You should be well organized and prepared to deal with the requirements of a lot of paperwork, copying of files and searching for evidence. It helps if you are familiar with the way to conduct a search for records on the Internet, use a word processor, own or have access to a scanner and copier and you're confident that you have the patience to deal with details.  The VA process, even at its best, is slow, prone to error, and requires constant attention. A veteran who can organize his or her information and keep good records of interactions with VA during the claims process is much better positioned to be successful.

If you believe that you meet these requirements, you should proceed to apply for your deserved benefits.

You should file your claim as  soon as possible after you decide that you are eligible to apply for benefits. This is because  the date of filing (when the claim form is received by VA) establishes the start date of your award. You do not need to wait to file your claim until you have gathered all the supporting evidence.  You'll have plenty of time to submit your evidence after you file.  Waiting until you gather every last piece of evidence only costs you money because VA will only pay you from the date of the claim, no matter when the condition began.

You may file an informal or a formal claim. An informal claim may be as simple as a brief letter to the VA stating you wish to file a claim. The VA will accept that and then ask you to complete the VA Form 21-526 to formalize your claim. If you are reading this, there is really no reason to file an informal claim because eventually you have to complete the formal claim form anyways.  Also, there are often disputes over informal claims and you risk VA later not recognizing your claim.

The much preferred method to file a claim is to complete a VA Form 21-526. The link will take you to the 23 page form on the VA web site. This is a PDF document and that requires that you have the free PDF reader installed on your computer. That PDF reader is available by clicking here.

As of this writing, the Form 21-526 on the VA site is "fillable". This means that you may complete the form by using your computer to type information into the required places. After you've done that and finished the form, you may print it out for mailing to the VA Regional Office that will serve you. If you aren't comfortable doing that, you may print out copies to complete in ink and mail to VA. 

If your computer refuses to cooperate with you, you may go to any VA facility such as a regional office, VA medical center or clinic and they will provide you with one. You may also call 1-800-827-1000 to ask that a form be mailed to you.

Before you begin, carefully read through the instructions. While the form isn't difficult to complete, understanding what will be required before you begin will save you time and frustration.

Once you've completed and signed the form, it's time to mail it in. The VA doesn't want all those instructions so you may keep those for your records. Be sure you keep a good copy of the completed form for yourself.

It should be mailed to the VA Regional Office (VARO) in the state where you live (or the closest VARO if you live in a state with more than one) using Certified Mail with Return Receipt requested. I strongly recommend that this is the only way that you should ever send documents such as forms and evidence to the VARO. I do not recommend using a fax machine, any sort of email or even hand delivery. Certified mail will provide you with signed evidence of delivery just in case a document goes missing.

Once you've mailed off your 21-526 application and you have the receipt proving delivery in hand, you should begin in earnest to gather the evidence you'll need to support your claim. VA will eventually notify you that they have received your application and over the next few weeks and months you will receive letters that will remind you to submit any and all evidence possible.

It's worth noting that the letters you'll receive will often be repetitive and they'll make you wonder if VA has received anything you've sent in already. Not to worry, the letters are computer generated and are part of the requirement that VA has to assist you in developing your claim. You should keep everything you receive from VA in case you run into a problem about whether or when something was or was not sent to you. If you get into the habit of putting everything you send to and recieve from VA in a file in by date, you will have no trouble finding whatever information you may need in the future. If you've used certified mail and return receipts, you should save each one of the certified receipts and return receipts with the documents that they go with.  Also, if you have the receipts, VA received your documents and they'll get around to them in turn.

If you do not receive any letter from VA in about two months, you may want to send another copy of your claim and a copy of the certified mail and return receipts, along with a cover letter explaining to VA that you sent in the form before, but have not received any acknowledgement.  This will usually prompt a response.

You are probably going to receive a notice or a call about a compensation and pension exam. Even if it's short notice and it may be inconvenient for you, you should make every effort to get to the exam as soon as possible. If you just can't make it on the date scheduled, notify VA at your earliest convenience. If you don't show up for an exam or if you're extremely late for a scheduled exam, the VA may default to a denial of your benefits and you then have a real issue to confront.

Now you wait. You may wait six months to a year before any progress is made. During this time it's important that all you do is wait. Don't call the VA to ask why it's taking so long, don't write angry letters to your Senator or Congressman. Any action you take now, other than submitting supporting evidence, is likely to slow your claim down. The VA is estimated by various sources to be a year or more behind in the processing of some 400,000 to 800,000 claims. Yours is in line with those and if you have done your job well with your application and evidence, your claim will eventually have its turn to be rated.

The only time I recommend that you ask VA to speed up your claim is if you are truly critically ill or your doctors do not believe you will outlive a long wait. In that case, VA may prioritize your claim for processing after you've notified them. The notification of your desire to have your claim prioritized should be sent as a brief letter via certified mail and should include a statement from a physician as to the seriousness of your condition.

If it sounds simple to file a claim for disability compensation benefits, it's because it is. Winning your claim after you've filed is another matter entirely. If you do this part of the process well, you've just markedly increased your chances of a good result.

But your task isn't complete. If you aren't confident you can do all that, you should seek a representative. Even if you do ask a representative such as a VSO to help you, the VSO will want you to be involved in your own claim. You may be told that, "This isn't a spectator sport!" Your VSO will do a much better job for you if you're actively helping to gather evidence an getting good copies of evidence to the VSO for review.

A Checklist For Filing A Claim The VAWatchdog Way

* First time filing a claim? Complete a VA Form 21-526.
* Filed a claim before? Don't use the 21-526, just write a letter.
* Tell VA (in a brief letter) what you want for your rating. Be BRIEF and specific.
* Enclose evidence with your letter. Be sure your name and numbers are on every page.
* Mail the letter and evidence using certified mail, RRR. (Yes. we're old school.)
* You do not need a representative. (DIY is the WTG.)
* You should not use the eBenefits site.
* Wait for the green certified mail receipt. When you receive it, you know VA has your letter.
* Unless you have earth shattering evidence, don't send anything else to VA.
* Be on the alert for a notice about a C & P exam. Do not miss or reschedule.
* Wait patiently for the award/denial letter.
* While you wait, consider your appeal. Some 70% of you will be denied for the wrong reasons.
* If you have existing ratings, you may file for any new conditions and/or you may file for increases in existing ratings.
* Don't compare your disabilities and ratings with others.
* Don't listen to advice from strangers at VA facilities. If you ask 10 people about your claim, 8 of them will give you wrong answers.
* Be patient. VA is a badly broken machine and your anger won't fix it.
* Plan your future as if you will never receive a VA benefit. Don't rely on VA to help you, always have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan B is the VA.

If you have a well grounded claim and you stick to the hints above, you'll prevail. Eventually. This will probably take a while. Think; One year minimum. Prepare for; Three years for the first adjudication. If you must appeal, prepare for 5 or more years.