Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Veterans Law Blog, the largest and longest running blog on veterans benefits, written by VA-accredited attorney Chris Attig.
So the moment has arrived: After years of doing battle with the Department of Veterans Affairs on your disability compensation claim, you got the award letter in the mail.
Here are seven things to think about after winning a VA claim.
1. After winning a VA claim or appeal, be sure to safeguard past-due benefits.
Many veterans find themselves with a substantial sum of past-due benefits, often ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many veterans haven’t dealt with large sums of money before, and so they make a couple of mistakes.
First, they tell everyone how much money the VA paid them.
Second, they rush out and spend the money.
I advise my clients not to tell family and friends about the amount of past-due benefits unless they need to know to help render assistance. Money causes tension inside the family more than anywhere else.
Unless a family member is a caregiver or your spouse or your accountant, and needs to know how much money for some reason to help you, there’s no need to tell them.
Don’t make any major changes until you have consulted with trusted financial planners.
For example, I don’t think there’s any need to run out and immediately pay off the house until you’ve consulted with a financial planner and an accountant to make sure that is the smartest way to use that money.
Ultimately, however, I am not a financial planner so please don’t think I’m giving you financial advice — I am trying to open your mind to a bigger picture that folks aren’t often aware of.
Yes, your bills have been piling up, and you need to take care of those.
After that, set aside an emergency fund with some of the money, and set up a cushion of 2-3 months (my family shoots for a six-month cushion) of living expenses in case something really bad happens.
Consider putting the rest in an interest-bearing and low-risk account for 90 days while you talk to several financial planners and tax planners — you don’t need to spend gobs of money to do this — and get an idea what your options are.
There are a lot of folks who prey on people who have come into “new money” — most of them having to do with some sort of insurance or pyramid marketing scheme.
Don’t fall for it. Put your money in a secure savings vehicle, and let it cool while you figure out your options.
2. Be sure you are signed up for direct deposit from the VA.
Sign up for direct deposit through the VA; a form should be included in your award packet.
You can also sign up over the phone: call 800-827-1000 and wait for the prompts. Or go to eBenefits and sign up there too.
Direct deposit ensures that you will get your benefits automatically deposited to your bank account, and you don’t have to worry about “lost checks” from the VA.
Remember, these clowns lose your paperwork all the time; don’t be surprised when they “lose” a paper check.
3. Consider whether you should enroll in VA health care.
If you were just granted service-connection, you are likely entitling to some degree of VA medical care.
Even if you don’t want to use the VA medical care, consider enrolling now.
It’s easier to do it now, for one thing.
Second, if something catastrophic happens, you want to have the option to get medical care through the VA instead of being charged $26 for an aspirin by a private hospital.
One time you might not want to enroll in VA medical care is if you’d rather get treatment at a private doctor, and live in a state that opted into the Obamacare Medicaid expansion — if you are enrolled in VA medical care, you cannot get insurance through the Medicaid expansion. For folks who are scared to death of getting treated at the VA, this might be one time you don’t want to enroll in VA health care.
Did you know that if you have private insurance, and seek care at the VA medical center, in most cases, you can’t be balance-billed?
The VA will submit the claim, and if your insurance only pays a portion of it, they can’t bill you for the difference. I’m not saying you should do this, just letting you know it’s an option to consider.
4. Sign up for additional benefits after winning a VA claim.
There are additional benefits that you should start researching: vocational rehab, education benefits, life insurance, automobile and housing adaptation grants for mobility access, and so on.
One of my biggest regrets was not taking advantage of the VA Voc Rehab program when I was in law school.
Instead of getting VA assistance for things like paying for the bar exam, I am sitting on a mountain of law-school debt.
5. Research state benefits for disabled veterans.
Most, if not all, states have benefits for disabled veterans.
The qualifications for state veterans benefits vary from state to state, but examples of benefits range from property tax reductions to free hunting licenses.
In Texas, for example, disabled veterans can apply to their tax appraisal district for a reduction in their property tax based on the percentage of their disability.
6. Appeal for the correct effective date and/or challenge the impairment rating.
In less than 5% of the cases I’ve seen, the VA has gotten the effective date correct. If you aren’t sure, contact an attorney to do a claim review to see if the VA established the correct effective date.
Another area that the VA repeatedly messes up is special monthly compensation, which it is one of the hardest areas of VA law to “get,” so I’m not too hard on the VA for messing it up.
However, SMC could add anywhere from $93 to $2000 to your monthly benefits check and increase the past-due amounts that the VA owes you.
7. File VA claims for increase.
Did your condition worsen while the claim was pending?
In theory, the impairment rating should be based on the most up-to-date medical records and assessments available.
However, the VA takes so long to issue a decision after a compensation and pension exam that many conditions can worsen during that same time period. File a claim for increase as soon as you believe your condition has worsened.
And don’t forget, if you are hospitalized for your now service-connected condition, you might be eligible for a temporary total disability rating (100%).
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