Military service can be hazardous, even if you never see combat. It’s not uncommon for men and women to join the military when they are young and healthy, then endure numerous injuries and illnesses during their years of service. Some of these injuries can impact the veteran for the rest of their life.
Thankfully, the Department of Veterans Affairs may offer military veterans VA disability compensation if they endured a serious injury or illness while serving in the military.
According to the VA, VA Disability Compensation is a benefit paid to a veteran because of injuries or diseases that happened while on active duty, or were made worse by active military service. It is also paid to certain veterans disabled from VA health care. The benefits are tax-free.
Let’s take a look at why all Veterans should apply for a VA disability rating (if they have had any medical or health-related issues in the service), how to apply, VA disability ratings, disability compensation tables, how to add dependents to your VA disability claim, how your VA disability rating impacts your military retirement pay, and finally, how Cost of Living Adjustments impact your disability compensation.
Why You Should Apply for a VA Disability Rating
Filing a VA disability claim is about more than a label or receiving disability compensation. The most important factor is getting the VA to recognize that you have a service-connected illness or injury.
This helps to protect you if your illness or injury becomes worse over time. It’s much easier to get your disability claim approved as you are leaving, or shortly after leaving, the service. Waiting years can make your disability claim more difficult to prove, and potentially less likely to be approved by the VA.
It’s even possible to receive a 0% disability rating for certain conditions. This can occur when the VA acknowledges there is a medical condition that occurred while you were in the service, but it isn’t bad enough to warrant a higher rating or disability compensation.
At least not yet.
But having the service-connected rating, even if it is 0%, makes it easier to apply to have the rating increased later if it is warranted.
There are other potential benefits to applying for a disability rating – you may be eligible for financial compensation, additional medical coverage through the VA, or other benefits, such as Veterans Preference Points for civilian jobs.
There is much more to this topic, and I encourage you to read Doug Nordman’s article on why you should file a VA Disability claim, which you can find at The Military Guide website.
Overcoming the Objections to Filing a VA Disability Claim
Many veterans don’t want to feel like they are stressing the system, especially when others sacrificed so much more than they did. They don’t want to feel like they are milking the system. Many veterans don’t want to label themselves as, “disabled.”
These are understandable thoughts. But let’s look at them from another perspective.
Applying for a VA disability rating doesn’t take benefits away from another deserving veteran. It doesn’t prevent another veteran from applying for or receiving the care or benefits they have earned. If you have earned these benefits, you should apply for them.
You aren’t milking the system if you are honest in your application and your claim is approved. You are receiving the benefits you deserve.
As for the term “disabled,” I’d look no further than the VA definition –
“VA Disability Compensation is a benefit paid to a veteran because of injuries or diseases that happened while on active duty, or were made worse by active military service.“
It’s just as easy to say,
“I am a veteran who has a medical condition caused by my service to my country.”
Submitting a VA Disability Claim & Receiving Your Disability Rating
VA disability ratings are awarded based on the specific injuries or illnesses that occurred while you were serving on active duty.
To apply for a VA disability rating, you must submit your disability claim to the VA. They will review your claim, your military medical records, and you will be examined by one or more VA doctors who will evaluate your claim.
After your medical examination and a thorough review of your records, the VA will make a determination on your claim. They will then send you an Award Letter detailing your disability rating, if any, for each item on your disability claim. You can even file an appeal if you disagree with the VA’s decision.
The math gets a little fuzzy, so it’s good to read up on how VA Math works so you can understand the VA disability rating system.
Your VA disability rating and the number of your qualified dependents is used to determine the VA disability compensation you will receive each month.
There is no specific time limit to apply for a VA disability rating. However, it is much easier to apply when you out-process the military, or shortly thereafter, rather than waiting years to apply for disability benefits.
Here is more information on the VA disability claim application process and how it works.
The VA will process your VA disability claim, and they will assign a rating if it is approved. This article covers more about what happens when your VA disability claim is approved.
Where to Get Help When Filing a Disability Claim
You can file a disability claim with the VA on your own. However, it’s a good idea to get some help with the process. There are several forms to fill out, including questionnaires which require the veteran to discuss how the injury or illness occurred or was made worse by military service, how it impacts them on a daily basis, and whether or not secondary injuries have occurred due to the injury in question. You will also need to be examined by one or more VA doctors, sit through interviews, etc.
In general, it is a lengthy, and sometimes complicated process. I recommend enlisting the services of a veterans benefits counselor at a Veterans Service Organization, such as the DAV, AMVETS, VFW, American Legion, or a host of similar organizations. Another great place to start is your county VA office.
These organizations often have trained benefits counselors who can assist you with your claim, free of charge. They have the knowledge and expertise to walk you through the claims process and help you avoid common mistakes that could delay your claim by months or even years.
It’s important to get your claim right the first time you submit it. Some mistakes on your claim could cause it to be rejected. In some cases, the VA may put it at the bottom of the pile when they receive the revised claim. Getting it right the first time will save you a ton of time and stress!
Finally, it is generally best to only submit one claim at a time, unless you have a very good reason to submit a separate claim. Having multiple claims in process at a time may delay how long it takes to fully process your claims. If possible, see if you can add an item to your current claim, rather than starting a new one.
VA Disability Compensation Rates
VA disability compensation rates are based on several factors, including your overall service-connected disability rating, and whether or not you have any qualified dependents listed on your VA disability claim. (See next section for more info about adding removing a dependent to your VA disability claim). VA Disability compensation rates are also impacted by annual COLA adjustments.
Calculating your VA disability rating is outside the scope of this article. Just keep in mind that VA math is not the same math you did in school. It’s a complicated algorithm. It’s recommended to read up on how multiple disability ratings are calculated so you have a better understanding of the benefits you have earned.
Listing the full VA disability benefits table in this article would take up a lot of space, so I recommend visiting this article for the full list of tables.
How to Add or Remove a Dependent from VA Compensation Benefits
The VA will increase your disability compensation payment if you have qualified dependents listed on your claim, and you have a disability rating of 30% or higher.
Qualified dependents typically include a spouse, children (up to age 18, unless attending higher education full-time), adult children with qualifying disabilities, and parents, if you if they qualify as your dependent.
You can request to add or remove dependents to your VA claim via a paper form, or online via the VONAPP system or the VA eBenefits site.
- VA Form 21-686c – Declaration of Status of Dependents, or
- VA Form 21-674 – Request for Approval of School Attendance for dependents over age 18 and attending school, or
- VA Form 21-509 – Statement of Dependency of Parent(s)
You will need to verify your children are attending school full-time once they reach age 18. You can continue receiving benefits for them up to age 23, provided they continue to attend school full-time.
Children are no longer eligible once they are married, or no longer attending school. There are exceptions for adult children with qualifying disabilities or special needs.
You want to file your claim to add or remove a dependent as soon as possible to ensure the VA is sending you the correct compensation amount. The VA can only retroactively apply benefits for dependents for a certain amount of time.
And it is your responsibility to remove dependents as soon as possible after they are no longer eligible. This could include major life events such as births, deaths, marriage, divorce, dropping out of school, and more. Failing to remove a dependent in a timely manner can result in an overpay of benefits which may incur a debt to the VA.
I cannot stress how important this is. I have received numerous emails from veterans who received debt notifications from the VA for failing to remove dependents from their account. The VA requires veterans to return the amount of the overpayment, either in the form of a one-time payment, or as a reduction from future disability compensation payments.
How VA Disability Compensation Impacts Your Military Retirement Pay
This topic can be tricky and is subject to heated debate. So we’ll try to lay it out in a quick manner. For a more detailed guide, check out this article about how disability impacts retirement pay.
Prior to 2004, VA disability compensation offset a military retiree’s retirement pay. The retiree would receive their full VA disability compensation, but their retirement pay was reduced by the same amount, dollar for dollar.
The gross pay was the same, but the net pay was higher, as VA disability compensation is not subject to Federal taxes (it is also exempt from most state taxes).
Two laws have since been passed that change this for some veterans. These two laws are:
Concurrent Retirement Disability Pay (CRDP) is also referred to as Concurrent Receipt. CRDP was passed in 2004 and applies to military retirees who have a combined VA disability rating of 50% or greater. Military retirees who have a service-connected disability rating of 50% or higher are eligible to receive their full military retirement pay in addition to their full VA disability compensation, without any portion being offset. Those who have a rating of 40% or lower still have their VA disability compensation offset from their military retirement pay.
Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC) was passed in 2008 and applies to military retirees who have a service-connected disability rating of at least 10% that stems from a combat-related incident. Members with a combat-related disability rating can receive their disability compensation in addition to their full military retirement pay without any offset. CRSC has a more complicated application process that must be made through your branch of service. I encourage you to do more reading on this topic if you believe you may be eligible.
Annual Cost of Living Adjustments
Increases in VA Service-Connected Disability Rates are tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). These are the same rates the government uses for determining Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) for Social Security recipients, military retirees, and federal civilian retirees.
There is an increase in most years, but it can be possible for there to be no increase. Since 1975, there have only been three years in which there was no COLA increase. These were in 2009, 2010, and 2015. See the SSA site for a list of annual COLA increases.
It’s not uncommon to see an annual COLA in the low, single-digit range. While a 1% or 2% or 3% increase might not seem like a lot, it can add up quickly. Remember, these annual COLA increases compound over time. The impact in a decade can be substantial.
You can learn more about how COLA can significantly increase your payments over time.
Additional Benefits of a VA Disability Rating
Having a VA Disability rating can have a lasting impact.
VA Health Care
The most important is that it makes you eligible for health care from the VA for that specific injury or illness. Depending on the severity of your rating, you may be eligible for additional health care or benefits through the VA.
At its basic level, this means the VA will take care of your current and future health care needs as they relate to your service-connected disability rating.
Contact the VA for more information about enrolling in the VA health care program, your priority rating, and additional information.
The monthly disability compensation adds up over time. Having a VA disability rating may also make you eligible for hiring preferences at certain local, state, or federal jobs.
Veterans with a VA disability rating also do not have to pay the VA Loan funding fee, which can amount to large savings when buying a home
Federal Benefits & Base Access for Commissary & Base Exchanges
All veterans also have access to online base exchange stores. This program went into effect a few years ago.
State Benefits for Disabled Veterans
Many states also offer certain benefits to members with a military disability rating, including reduced property taxes, eligibility for education or training benefits, and sometimes education benefits for dependents. For example, children of military veterans with a disability rating do not have to pay college tuition in the state of California.
Many of these benefits are on a case by case basis, depending on the member’s rating, when/where they served, where they live now, etc. It’s always a good idea to meet with a veterans benefits counselor at the VA or at a Veterans Service Organization to go over the benefits you may be eligible to receive.