Funny Math – VA Disability Ratings. When 30 + 20 Doesn’t Always Equal 50 (Podcast 004)

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VA Math - combined disability ratingsUndersstanding how the VA does math is an important part of understanding your benefits.
Combined VA disability ratings don't use "normal" math. Instead of adding your disability ratings together with straight math (for example, 10+10 = 20), the VA uses a special formula to calculate combined VA disability ratings. We show you how this formula works and how to calculate combined VA disability ratings.

The Military Wallet Podcast on iTunesIf I asked you the answer to 30 + 20, you would quickly tell me 50. And you would be right in just about every instance. But for veterans with service-connected disability ratings, the math doesn’t always work out quite so easily. In fact, 30 + 20 might only equal 44, which rounds down to 40. Or it might equal 48.4, which rounds up to 50. Confused yet? Welcome to the world of VA Math!

VA Math - combined disability ratings
Understanding VA math is essential for understanding your benefits.

The VA Service-Connected Disability rating system is complex. There are many reasons for this, and that’s a topic best left for another day, and another website. But there is one aspect I would like to address today: the somewhat confusing math used to determine the final service-connected disability rating awarded to veterans. This is the rating used to determine compensation payments and access to other service-connected disability benefits. It’s enormously important you understand how your rating is determined so you can make sure your benefits are calculated properly. The difference can literally be worth hundreds, or even thousands of dollars a year in compensation payments and other benefits.

Let’s dive in.

What Do Disability Ratings Represent?

The first thing to understand is what your disability rating represents. In short, the VA takes each individual injury or illness into consideration and gives it a numerical disability rating. Each rating is represented by a percentage divisible by 10 (ex: 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, etc.). These disabilities are racked and stacked, then the VA does “VA Math” to determine your overall disability rate. We’ll get to the math later in this article.

A good way to look at this is to consider how the disabilities affect your ability to perform work and daily activities. To do this, the VA takes into account your overall efficiency after the disability or disabilities are considered. Let’s say you are a normal 40-year-old retiree with no major service-connected injuries or illnesses. Your efficiency would be rated at 100%. Now let’s assume you just retired from the military after 20 years of service and had some service-connected disabilities.

For example, let’s say you tweaked your knee while you were deployed and had arthroscopic surgery. You still have some pain and stiffness in that knee and the VA grants you a 10% service-connected disability rating. Assuming this is your only service-connected disability rating, your service-connected disability rating would be 10%. This is determined by looking at your efficiency, which is 90% (efficiency rating of 100, times 10% disability rating = 10%. You subtract 10% from 100% and end up with 90%). The math is simple when you only have one disability rating to consider. We’re going to come back to the math in a moment because it changes dramatically with each new service-connected rating we consider.

More than one disability rating? Each injury or illness is rated by itself, without consideration of other illnesses or injuries, unless they contribute to further injuries. We will also need to take into consideration whether or not the injuries are bilateral, which means they affect limbs on both sides of the body (for example, disabilities on both arms, or both legs). All of your disability ratings are listed in descending order, then the VA math begins.

How the VA Rates Multiple Disabilities

The above example covers the most basic situation – a single disability rating. In the previous example, it seems like you can just subtract the 10% from 100% and come up with 90%. But notice that we didn’t do the math that way. Things get more interesting when you have more disability ratings. Let’s run through an example, building on the previous profile.

Example profile: We’re going to stay with our example of a 40-year-old military retiree. Above we said he had a disability in his knee. Let’s add a few conditions and do some math.

Let’s say our retiree has the following service-connected disability ratings:

  • 30% rating for a back injury,
  • 20% rating for right shoulder injury,
  • 10% rating for his right knee, and
  • 10% for hearing loss.

Now for the math: The VA uses a descending efficiency scale for its calculations. The VA will rate each injury or illness, giving each a numerical rating. When it comes time to determine the overall rating, the VA will start with the highest rating, then work its way down. You start with an efficiency rating of 100, then work your way down. Each new disability gives you a new baseline.

We start by racking and stacking the disabilities.  In the example above, we have ratings of 30%, 20%, 10%, and 10%. We start with the 30%, then factor in the 20%, the 10%, then the final 10%. Again, we aren’t subtracting here, we’re doing VA math. At the bottom of this article is the VA Combined Ratings Table, which we will use to complete our calculations (you may find it easier to open this article in two browser tabs so you can follow along or download and print the Combined Ratings Table, which we have a link to).

We start with the 30% disability. Look at the Combined Ratings Table and scroll down the left column until you find the number 30. Then go to the right column until you find the 20. The 30 and 20 combine for 44. If those are your only two ratings, you would have a 44% Va service-connected disability rating, which would round down to 40%. But we’re not done. We still have to add two 10% ratings.

Start on the left column again. This time, you will look for the 44 in the left column. Then find the intersection point with the 44 and 10. Your new rating is 50%. Repeat this one more time, starting with 50, and meeting up with 10. Your new combined rating is 55%, which rounds up to 60%.

How does this add up? Again, we aren’t doing normal subtraction here. We are doing VA math. You start with your efficiency rate of 100, multiple it by your disability rating, then subtract the result from your original rating. In this case, you would multiple 30% times 100, and get 30. You subtract that from 100 and come up with 70. Your new efficiency rating is 70 and your disability rating is 30. This is the starting point for the next calculation. You repeat the process for the next rating. You take 20%, multiply it by 70, and come up with 14. You subtract 14 from 70, and you get 56. Your new efficiency rating is 56, and your disability rating is 44. You repeat the process for each additional disability rating.

The math can be a bit confusing if you try to do it manually. The best thing to do is to use the VA Combined Ratings Table, which does the math for you.

How Bilateral Disabilities Affect Your Rating

There is one more issue we need to consider – the bilateral factor. The bilateral factor can have a big impact on your rating, so don’t dismiss it.

What is the Bilateral Factor? The bilateral factor is considered when the veteran has disabilities on both limbs (for example, both arms, or both legs, or of paired skeletal muscles). The disabilities don’t have to mirror each other. For example, they don’t need to occur on both knees to be considered bilateral. A left foot disability and a right knee disability satisfies the requirement they injuries be on both legs.

With the bilateral factor, the VA combines two or more ratings, adds a bilateral factor to the outcome, and considers them as one rating when using the Combined Ratings Table (found below). It’s best if I quote the regulations the VA uses, then we’ll use this in an example:

§4.26 Bilateral factor (Source).

When a partial disability results from disease or injury of both arms, or of both legs, or of paired skeletal muscles, the ratings for the disabilities of the right and left sides will be combined as usual, and 10 percent of this value will be added (i.e., not combined) before proceeding with further combinations, or converting to degree of disability. The bilateral factor will be applied to such bilateral disabilities before other combinations are carried out and the rating for such disabilities including the bilateral factor in this section will be treated as 1 disability for the purpose of arranging in order of severity and for all further combinations. For example, with disabilities evaluated at 60 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent and 10 percent (the two 10’s representing bilateral disabilities), the order of severity would be 60, 21 and 20. The 60 and 21 combine to 68 percent and the 68 and 20 to 74 percent, converted to 70 percent as the final degree of disability.

(a) The use of the terms “arms” and “legs” is not intended to distinguish between the arm, forearm and hand, or the thigh, leg, and foot, but relates to the upper extremities and lower extremities as a whole. Thus with a compensable disability of the right thigh, for example, amputation, and one of the left foot, for example, pes planus, the bilateral factor applies, and similarly whenever there are compensable disabilities affecting use of paired extremities regardless of location or specified type of impairment.

(b) The correct procedure when applying the bilateral factor to disabilities affecting both upper extremities and both lower extremities is to combine the ratings of the disabilities affecting the 4 extremities in the order of their individual severity and apply the bilateral factor by adding, not combining, 10 percent of the combined value thus attained.

(c) The bilateral factor is not applicable unless there is partial disability of compensable degree in each of 2 paired extremities, or paired skeletal muscles.

Example using the Bilateral Factor

Let’s stick with the example profile from above, but let’s add another knee disability, one on each leg. This would qualify for the bilateral factor. The disability rating for each knee was 10%, but when combined, they equal 21%, according to the VA’s Combined Rating Table. Here is how we apply the bilateral factor:

Bilateral Factor Applied:

A 10% disability combined with another 10% disability = 19%,

Then you add 10% of 19, or 1.9%.

19% + 1.9% = 20.9%, which rounds up to 21%.

The combined rating for both knees is now 21%, and the VA will use 21% as the rating for those disabilities. It is possible to have more than two disabilities combined in the bilateral factor.

New example with Bilateral Factor: We’ll stick with the previous example, but add the other knee injury and see how it affects the final outcome. Let’s say our retiree has the following service-connected disability ratings:

  • 30% rating for a back injury,
  • 21% (10% rating for his left knee, and 10% rating for his right knee, with bilateral factor applied),
  • 20% rating for right shoulder injury, and
  • 10% for hearing loss.

Using the Combined Rating Table, we start with the 21% rating and the 30% rating. This takes us to 45. Follow the left column down to 45 and find where it intersects with 20. You get 56. Repeat the process for 56 and 10, and you get 60. This overall service-connected disability rating for this veteran is exactly 60%.

The previous example was 55%, rounded up to 60%, and this example was exactly 60%. As your disability percentage increases, it takes more disabilities with higher ratings to move the needle. This is the impact of the math the VA uses to determine disability ratings.

VA Combined Ratings Table

The VA Combined Ratings Table is where all the math magic happens.

Instructions: List all disabilities in descending order. Start with the highest disability rating, find it in the left column, and find the intersecting point with the next highest disability rating. This is your combined rating for these two disabilities. If these are your only two disabilities, you can round to the nearest number divisible by 10 (all numbers 4.9 and lower are rounded down; 5 and higher are rounded up). Repeat this process until you have run the numbers for all disability ratings.

(Article continues below table):

 102030405060708090
19273543516068768492
20283644526068768492
21293745536168768492
22303845536169778492
23313846546269778592
24323947546270778592
25334048556370788593
26334148566370788593
27344249566471788593
28354250576471788693
29364350576572798693
30374451586572798693
31384552596672798693
32394652596673808693
33404653606773808793
34414754606774808793
35424855616874818794
36424955626874818794
37435056626975818794
38445057636975818894
39455157637076828894
40465258647076828894
41475359657176828894
42485459657177838894
43495460667277838994
44505561667278838994
45515662677378848995
46515762687378848995
47525863687479848995
48535864697479849095
49545964697580859095
50556065707580859095
51566166717680859095
52576266717681869095
53586267727781869195
54596368727782869195
55606469737882879196
56606569747882879196
57616670747983879196
58626671757983879296
59636771758084889296
60646872768084889296
61656973778184889296
62667073778185899296
63677074788285899396
64687175788286899396
65697276798386909397
66697376808386909397
67707477808487909397
68717478818487909497
69727578818588919497
70737679828588919497
71747780838688919497
72757880838689929497
73767881848789929597
74777982848790929597
75788083858890939598
76788183868890939598
77798284868991939598
78808285878991939698
79818385879092949698
80828486889092949698
81838587899192949698
82848687899193959698
83858688909293959798
84868789909294959798
85878890919394969799
86878990929394969799
87889091929495969799
88899092939495969899
89909192939596979899
90919293949596979899
91929394959696979899
92939494959697989899
93949495969797989999
94959596969798989999

Source: 38 CFR 4.25 – Combined ratings table. Downloadable PDF: You can download this table here (pdf, courtesy of PurpleHeart.org).

Online VA Disability Ratings Calculator: It’s great to know how to use the Combined Ratings Table so you can verify your disability rating for yourself. But it’s also nice to be able to use a calculator that takes all of these factors into consideration. Here is a great online calculator that will help you determine your disability rating. This calculator seems accurate for the most part. However, it doesn’t seem to account for the bilateral factor. So you may wish to use the Combined Ratings Table to determine your overall rating if you have bilateral disabilities.

Summary: VA Math can seem confusing at first. But it makes sense when you take some time to run the numbers. When in doubt, use the Combined Ratings Table to do the math for you. If you have further questions about your specific case, then I recommend contacting the VA for clarification, or contacting a Veterans Service Officer at a Veterans Service Organization. VSO’s will help you with your claim free of charge.

Oh, and as for the examples with the 30 + 20: The combined ratings table shows us two disabilities rated at 30 and 20 equal 44%. This rounds down to 40% disability rating. If you apply the bilateral factor to disability ratings of 30 and 20, you would get 48.4% (44% + 4.4%). This rounds up to 50%.

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About Ryan Guina

Ryan Guina is the founder and editor of The Military Wallet. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over 6 years on active duty in the USAF and is a current member of the IL Air National Guard.

Ryan started The Military Wallet in 2007 after separating from active duty military service and has been writing about financial, small business, and military benefits topics since then. He also writes about personal finance and investing at Cash Money Life.

Ryan uses Personal Capital to track and manage his finances. Personal Capital is a free software program that allows him to track his net worth, balance his investment portfolio, track his income and expenses, and much more. You can open a free Personal Capital account here.

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  1. JRHD1 says

    This VA math is really something! I’ve got my head around it for the most part, but what if you have two bilateral disabilities?
    So if you’ve got 10% for both ankles, and also ten percent for both knees, for instance. Do you make one bilateral calculation or two? And if two, how?
    Thanks for the article and your response!

    • Ryan Guina says

      Great question. 

      My understanding is that the bilateral condition will only count once. However, I’m not 100% certain if you can include more than 2 ratings (one on each side)

      Here is the law:

      When a partial disability results from disease or injury of both arms, or of both legs, or of paired skeletal muscles, the ratings for the disabilities of the right and left sides will be combined as usual, and 10 percent of this value will be added (i.e., not combined) before proceeding with further combinations, or converting to degree of disability. (source)

      It doesn’t specify that you can only use one rating for the bilateral calculation. But I don’t have a definitive answer, either. I would take this question up with the VA or a qualified Veterans Service Organization rep.

      I wish you the best, and thank you for your service!

      • JRHD1 says

        Right. It wouldn’t be possible to follow the procedure for bilateral conditions separately, e.g. calculate a bilateral condition for two knee ratings and another for two shoulder ratings. You could end up with a 31, say, and another 31. How would you then total your rating?

        So the only thing that makes sense as far as I can tell, is, say you’ve got 10% each knee and 10% each shoulder, you would combine all four together– 10 + 10 = 19 + 10 = 27 + 10 = 34 + 3.4 (10%) = 37.4 as your bilateral rating.

        To only acknowledge one set of conditions as bilateral and disregard all others would not seem to comport with the law, and to calculate them independently would create an impossible situation. Thanks for helping me sort it.

    • Robert says

      Join the discussion…In this case, you put them all together and it yields a 37%, rounded to 40 if they are your only disabilities. If two were for arms and two were for legs, you would do to 10s together twice, both yielding 19% and then together they would still yield 37%, again rounded to 40% if these are your only issues.

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