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How to File a VA Disability Claim

Former military members who incurred injuries that prevent them from being able to perform at their best have a contractual right to be compensated for those injuries. They may have to settle for a job that pays less or one in a field they don’t enjoy. Veterans disability compensation fills financial gaps so that veterans can maintain a comfortable lifestyle and take care of their families, even if a disability prevents them from doing a job that would pay more.
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How to file a VA claim

Former military members who incurred injuries that prevent them from performing at their best have a contractual right to compensation for those injuries.

Veterans who are injured may have to settle for a job that pays less or a job in a field they don’t enjoy. Veteran disability compensation fills financial gaps so veterans can take care of themselves and their families while living with a service-connected illness or injury.

There are many benefits to VA compensation, other than just the cash compensation. 

First, the money is tax-free, so veterans who qualify for retirement can accept VA compensation instead and save on taxes.

In some cases, veterans can get both retired pay and VA compensation. 

A disability status can also save you money on tolls, property taxes or other state programs and fees. 

Veterans who qualify for VA loans can save money on the VA funding fee if they have a disability rating.  

Disability compensation may also provide school benefits to cover education for themselves or their families.  

All those pennies add up. 

But first, the VA needs to connect your condition to your military service and provide a rating. 

Table of Contents
  1. Eligibility Requirements for VA Disability Compensation
  2. How to Prepare Before Filing a VA Disability Claim
    1. Document and Save Everything
    2. Ask for Your Records and Review Them
    3. Reach Out to Your Family and Friends.
    4. Review Your Military Records
    5. Research VA Disability Criteria
  3. Ways to Apply for VA Disability Benefits
  4. Steps to File a VA Disability Claim
    1. Submit an Intent to File (if Applicable)
    2. Submit Medical Evidence and Service Records
    3. Verify if Additional Documentation is Needed
    4. Complete and  Submit Your Application
    5. Track Your VA Disability Claim Status
  5. How to File an Additional VA Disability Claim
  6. How Long Do I Have to File a VA Disability Claim?
    1. Filing a VA Claim Before Leaving the Military
    2. Filing a VA Claim When You Leave the Service
    3. Filing a VA Claim After Leaving the Service
  7. Can I File a VA Claim Myself?
  8. Who Can Help Me File a Claim for VA Disability?
  9. How Long Does It Take the VA to Process My Claim?
  10. What to Do if Your VA Disability Claim is Denied
  11. Top VA Disability Claims
  12. Common Mistakes to Avoid When Filing a VA Disability Claim

Eligibility Requirements for VA Disability Compensation

If you became sick, injured or began to experience mental health difficulties because of active duty, active duty for training or inactive duty training, you may be eligible for VA disability compensation.

Pre-existing conditions that became worse during your service may also qualify for compensation. 

Some conditions, such as tinnitus and hearing loss, may have appeared years after you left the military but still qualify for VA benefits. 

In any of the above cases, you must be able to link your condition to your service. 

How to Prepare Before Filing a VA Disability Claim

You’ll need to gather all your medical evidence and related service records before you file a VA disability claim. 

Some of the following steps may not apply to you, depending on your service status. 

Document and Save Everything

If you are still in the military, report everything to your doctor. 

If you’re concerned that the military medical community may ground you (or even disqualify you), then at least take care of your health with a civilian doctor (and get a copy of those records).

Document injuries, ailments, exposure to hazardous substances or environments, any treatments you receive and their impact on your life or ability to do your job. Keep track of temporary duty travel and deployment dates and locations too. You will need lots of supporting evidence for your claim. 

Ask for Your Records and Review Them

You need to request your medical records and review them. 

Start by tracking down any records from civilian medical providers that are related to injuries or illnesses you intend to claim. The VA should be able to access your military records. 

If you’ve been seen at a VA medical facility, the VA benefits division will have access to those records. Just tell the Veterans Benefits Administration which VA medical facility has the records. 

Look at your medications list and what injuries have been documented.

Pay special attention to what diagnoses you have on paper. If your medical record is inaccurate or just plain wrong, you’ll need to fix it. 

For instance, if a physician told you that you slipped a disk, but your diagnosis just says “back pain,” you may need to go back and get your diagnosis put on paper. 

You can also request an exam by a different doctor who could help reconstruct the events leading to your current condition on paper. 

Reach Out to Your Family and Friends.

If something occurred that is not officially documented, a supporting statement from someone who knew about your condition can go a long way. 

You can ask for summaries or “buddy statements” from friends or coworkers who were with you when you sought medical advice, or observed a condition’s impact on your life.  

The VA reviews buddy statements as evidence when records are limited or when you’re several years post service.

For example:

  • Your roommates in the service constantly complained about how you’d started snoring, and now you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
  • A fellow soldier witnessed you fall on your knee in physical training.
  • You wrote a letter or email to your mom about having no ear protection during an exercise. A few years later you found out that you can’t hear as well.

Review Your Military Records

Look at what’s in your service record. This information can also assist in your claim. Look for documentation for reported injuries, medals or awards that show your working conditions (such as Combat Infantry Badge, Purple Heart, parachutist badge, etc.), your MOS, rating or specialty and any additional duties or jobs you performed. 

The bottom line is that you need evidence on paper. Without that, you’re wasting your time with the VA. 

Research VA Disability Criteria

Make sure you read and understand the VA’s disability benefits questionnaires. These can help you determine if the VA considers your condition to be disabling. 

Pay attention to presumptive conditions associated with your period of service. 

For example, the VA presumes that Vietnam veterans may have had Agent Orange exposure. Gulf War veterans may have been exposed to burning oil wells. Navy engineers may have had asbestos exposure from steam-pipe lagging. Submariners might have been exposed to radiation. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms or conditions connected to these exposures you should report it to the VA. 

Funny Math:

How the VA Calculates Combined Disability Ratings

Ways to Apply for VA Disability Benefits

You will need to complete VA Form 21-526EZ, “Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefit” and submit it with all applicable evidence and records.

You can do it in one of the following ways.

  • Online: The easiest way to submit a claim is to sign into your VA.gov account and apply online.
  • By mail: You can also submit it by mail. Print off the form and all supporting documents and send to:

Department of Veterans Affairs

Claims Intake Center

PO Box 4444

Janesville, WI 53547-4444

  • In person: Visit a VA regional office near you and submit your documents in person.

Steps to File a VA Disability Claim

Submit an Intent to File (if Applicable)

If you are applying for a disability claim by mail or in person, notifying the VA of your intent is the first step.

You can visit a VA regional office near you and do it in person or call them at 800-827-1000. 

You can also complete VA Form 21-0966, Intent to File a Claim for Compensation and/or Pension or Survivors Pension and/or DIC, and mail it to the address above.

If you are applying for a VA disability claim online, clicking on the button to start the process serves as submitting your intent to file.

However you contact the VA about your intent to file, make sure you note the date. 

You have one year from that date to submit your claim. If you receive disability compensation for your claim, the VA may backdate your benefits to the date you submitted your intent to file.

Submit Medical Evidence and Service Records

You’ll include your DD-214 to prove your dates of service and the character of your discharge. 

Some VA benefits, including compensation amounts, are linked to your family status. so you should include your marriage certificate (even if you’re married to another military veteran) and birth certificates for any minor children who you’re still financially supporting. 

You’ll also include copies of all the medical evidence that you’ve been tracking down, such as doctor’s reports, X-rays and medical test results). 

You can give the VA permission to gather this evidence for you. However, you retain much more control over the process if you do it yourself. You’ll also get your results faster because you’ve done the VA’s ground work for them. 

Verify if Additional Documentation is Needed

You may need to submit additional forms or statements. 

For example, if you are a National Guard or Reserve member, you’ll need to submit all your service, medical and personnel records from your unit.

Certain disability claims have additional requirements. 

These include:

  • Post-traumatic stress syndrome
  • Auto allowances or an auto adaptive-equipment grants
  • Aid and Attendance for nursing home care

You can find the full list on the VA website.

Complete and  Submit Your Application

Complete all sections of your VA Form 21-526EZ, Application for Disability Compensation and related Compensation Benefits. Make sure that you have retained copies of this form and any supporting documents you include. 

Finally, submit your claim. (After all the record-gathering and research, filing the claim is admittedly anticlimactic).

Track Your VA Disability Claim Status

Now that your claim has been filed, you can track it with your eBenefits account. The VA will update your dashboard with the status of your claim and any messages they need to send to you. This may include requests for additional information. 

You may also be contacted by phone or mail if you are required to have a VA claim exam, also known as a compensation and pension (C&P) exam. 

While you’re on your eBenefits account, add your bank account information so that the VA can distribute your compensation (if any) by direct deposit. 

How to File an Additional VA Disability Claim

Your claims process isn’t necessarily over once the VA confirms your disability is service-connected. 

You may want to file one of these additional VA disability claims under certain circumstances:

  • Increased claim to increase your disability rating or financial support
  • New claim for additional benefits, such as a shift to individual unemployability status
  • Secondary service-connected disability claim if you develop a new condition that is linked to an existing service-connected disability, such as heart disease caused by high blood pressure
  • Special claim for special needs, such as a specially equipped vehicle

You’d make these claims in the same manner as your original claim.

Complete an application for disability compensation and related compensation benefits (VA Form 21-526EZ) and submit it online, in person or by mail, along with the required medical evidence.

How Long Do I Have to File a VA Disability Claim?

There is no deadline to file a VA disability claim, but the process can become more difficult as time passes and may take longer. 

Your service status or separation date can also impact your effective date, which is the date you’ll begin receiving compensation (or back-payment). 

Filing a VA Claim Before Leaving the Military

You can file up to 180 days before discharge. Even if it’s a disability that is not bothering you now, you can at least get a 0% service-connected disability rating if you have a diagnosis. 

Doing this now makes it easier to file for an increase later if your condition worsens (instead of filing a whole new claim to convince the VA that the injury happened in service).

Filing a VA Claim When You Leave the Service

When you’re leaving the service, start your VA disability claim in conjunction with your separation physical. 

It’s much easier to do it in parallel with your physical, and it’s the best time to document any “service-connected” disability. Even if you feel disgustingly healthy, file the claim now for anything you have a diagnosis for so that it’s on the record if a surprise pops up later.

Filing a VA Claim After Leaving the Service

If you’ve already separated yet haven’t filed a VA disability claim yet, then start one now so that your loved ones won’t ever have to do it for you. 

Even if the VA decides that you’re 0% disabled, you’ve done the hard work so that the VA can upgrade your rating later if you begin to experience a debilitating condition.

Can I File a VA Claim Myself?

You can file a claim on your own, but the process is time-consuming and complicated.

There are individuals who have training and experience filing disability claims who can assist you with the process and help you avoid common mistakes that could delay your claim or result in a less beneficial outcome for your claim.

Who Can Help Me File a Claim for VA Disability?

If you need help filing a disability claim, contact a VA regional office and ask to speak to a counselor. 

To find the nearest regional office, call 800-827-1000.

Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) can help and are free. Many are also VA-accredited. 

The VA website can help you find a VSO representative to assist you with your claim.

Here is their exhaustive list of Veteran Service Organizations. There are also state and county VSO reps you can see on this site or this one. Take the time to find one who is the right fit for you.

If you don’t want to use a free VSO and you have the money to spend, you can choose to hire a VA disability lawyer to assist you with your claim. This may be a good option if your case is very complex, if your initial claim didn’t go well or if you’re concerned about the appeal. Make sure that your lawyer has specialized knowledge and experience in the area of VA disability claims.

How Long Does It Take the VA to Process My Claim?

The VA will let you know once they receive your claim. Then, they’ll gather and review evidence from you and your health care providers and make a decision. Once they’ve decided, they’ll mail you a claim notification packet. 

According to the VA, this process will take approximately 156 days for a new claim.

If you submit a supplemental claim, the VA should notify you of their decision within 125 days. 

VA Reexamination Notices:

Can the VA Reduce Your Disability Benefits?

What to Do if Your VA Disability Claim is Denied

You have limited time to appeal a denied claim and maintain your initial effective date. If the VA denies your claim, file the appropriate appeal within the time allotted – one year in most cases.

There are several types of appeal options. Here are the main three: 

  • File a supplemental claim. If you have new, relevant evidence, you can file a supplemental claim at any time. It’s preferable to file within a year of the original decision.
  • Higher-level review. You have one year from the date of the decision letter to request that a senior reviewer go over your request. You cannot submit new evidence, but you can speak with the reviewer by phone to highlight any errors.
  • Board appeal. A Veterans Law Judge at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington, D.C. will review your disability claim. With this option, you have three additional choices to make about how your appeal will be handled: Direct review, submit more evidence or request a hearing.

Top VA Disability Claims

According to the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Benefits Report for 2020, the top 10 VA disability claims were:

  1. Tinnitus
  2. Hearing loss
  3. Limitation of flexion, knee
  4. Post-traumatic stress disorder
  5. Lumbosacral or cervical strain
  6. Scars, general
  7. Paralysis of the sciatic nerve
  8. Limitation of motion of the ankle
  9. Migraine
  10. Limitation of motion of the arm

Other common disability claims include sleep apnea, hypertensive vascular disease, degenerative arthritis of the spine and diabetes mellitus. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Filing a VA Disability Claim

  • Thinking you don’t deserve it. VA disability compensation is not charity.  It’s a benefit.  If you have a qualifying service-related disability, you have earned disability compensation.  Don’t be embarrassed to accept something that could make your life easier.  You never know what the future holds.
  • Not understanding the value of VA benefits. It’s not just about the compensation. You are potentially eligible for a host of other veterans’ benefits, including vocational rehabilitation, medical care, education and reduced fees on VA loans.
  • Being tough. When it comes to filing a VA disability claim, if it’s not in your records, it didn’t happen (with some exceptions). Go see a doctor (non-VA if necessary). Don’t minimize your symptoms, and don’t avoid treatment.
  • Not including secondary medical conditions. These are more common than you might think. Make sure you are communicating with your doctor about all of your symptoms. They may be able to educate you about what additional conditions may result from existing primary medical conditions. You may be eligible for additional compensation for secondary conditions.
  • Not keeping copies of all your records. If this applies to you, you will need to track down all your medical and military records to back your claim. Once your claim is complete, request a copy of your claims file (the C-file) from the VA.
  • Waiting until the last minute to request your records. You may be waiting on these records for several months. 
  • Missing deadlines: The VA is unforgiving if you are even one day late on your claim. If you don’t submit your claim within a year of notifying them of your intent to file, you will need to start over. If you miss the deadline for an appeal, you may not be able to file one.

Military Guide to Financial Independence

This book provides servicemembers, veterans, and their families with a critical roadmap for becoming financially independent. Topics include:

  • Military pension
  • TSP
  • Tricare Health System
  • & More

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About Doug Nordman

Doug Noordman is a United States Navy submarine force veteran with 20 years of service. Noordman retired in 2002 and wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. Noordman donates 100% of the revenue from his book sales to military-friendly charities.

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