The Veterans Administration approved my “fully developed” disability claim– in less than three months of processing.
This post stands by itself, but I’m going to skip the beginning of the story. If you want to read the earlier posts in this series then you can click on these links to learn why you should file your VA disability claim, then what happens when you file your claim, and finally what the VA really does with your claim.
I’ve been retired since 2002, but I didn’t appreciate that I had service-connected injuries documented in my medical record. After I retired I knew enough to register with our local VA medical center, because that’s one way they get their fair share of funding. I only qualified for the VA’s lowest priority of benefits, and instead, for the last 14 years, I’ve happily used a local civilian clinic for my healthcare.
Those injuries eventually caught up with me, of course, and life administered a few other lessons to convince me to file my claim. By then my years of benefits negligence had turned a relatively straightforward part of the military retirement process into a gnarly research project. I learned that many veterans are reluctant to file a VA disability claim, and that it was time for me to slog through all that reconstruction while I was still capable of doing it.
I was also fortunate enough to find an outstanding Veteran Services Officer on the first try. If you’re on Oahu then I strongly recommend consulting with Mr. Ryan Burgos in the Disabled American Veterans VSO office at Tripler Army Medical Center. He patiently answered all of my ignorant questions and helped me figure out what parts of the process applied to me. After I’d done my homework to gather all the records for a fully-developed claim (so that the VA didn’t have to), he quickly entered the data with the right format and vocabulary. Better yet, he explained how I should prepare for the compensation & pension exams and he tracked the claim’s progress through the VA bureaucracy.
He kept me safe on the claims path so that I didn’t tap-dance through acres of VA minefields. He’s the real reason that the VA was able to recognize the correct answers when they received the evidence, and his advice is why it only took the VA three months to approve the claim.
My VA Disability Rating
The Veterans Administration considers that I’m 30% disabled. But what does that really mean, and what benefits does that entitle me to use?
My knees are the worst of my disability ratings. 10% was assigned to each knee for cartilage damage, torn ligaments, and pain (osteoarthritis). To get a higher rating I would’ve needed to have two joints affected in each leg, or “occasional incapacitation”, or “15-19 degrees of extension limitation”. The VA rating system uses a bilateral “bonus” factor which combines the two knee disability ratings to a total of 21% (20.9%). (Military veteran Ryan Guina has an excellent description of the bilateral factor on his blog The Military Wallet.) After reading what it takes to get to a rating of 20%, I’m happy with 10%.
Another 10% disability rating was assigned for tinnitus. There’s no diagnostic exam or bilateral rating for that condition (although it rings differently in each ear!) and 10% is as high as permitted. This disability condition must be extremely common among veterans who’ve been in a hearing-protection environment.
I received no disability rating for hearing loss– yet. Hearing has to degrade greater than 40 db in a frequency, or else the ears can only detect sounds of at least 26 db, or with a speech recognition accuracy of less than 94%. I’m sure my spouse and daughter are thrilled to learn that my hearing loss is only 30-35 db for the higher-pitched frequencies of their voices, and that I’m hearing them with 96% accuracy. I don’t want to experience what it takes to get a disability rating for hearing loss, but I suspect that I’ll update this part of the claim in 5-10 years.
I received no disability rating for my claim of allergic rhinitis. I’m controlling it with an antihistamine and my nose isn’t obstructed enough. Again, nobody wants to be a member of the rhinitis disability club.
Using the VA compensation tables with 21% for both knees and 10% for the tinnitus gives a combined rating of 29%, which is rounded up to… 30%.
My VA Disability Compensation
None of my disability rating is related to combat (or combat training, or an “instrumentality of war”) so I’m not eligible for combat-related special compensation.
That rating is also far below the 50% threshold for concurrent receipt of both my pension and the disability benefits. Under federal law, this means that military retirees have a choice of receiving the full amount of their military pension or having part of the pension offset by VA compensation. A military pension is fully taxable under federal law (and in some states) but VA compensation is tax-free, so I elected to give up part of my pension.
The compensation amount for a veteran with a 30% rating, a spouse, and no dependent children is $455.75/month. Although my spouse is also a military retiree, that does not affect the amount of the compensation. Our daughter is an adult college graduate with her own Navy career so she no longer counts as our dependent.
When I filed my fully-developed claim, I set up my VA eBenefits account. It let me track the status of my VA claim and see what other information the VA still needed. More importantly, I used that site to enter my financial account data for depositing the disability compensation. When the VA completed my claim and established my disability rating, they immediately set up the electronic funds transfer. Less than a week after I received the notification letter from the VA, the Defense Finance & Accounting Service also notified me that my pension would be reduced by that amount.
Happily, the timing worked out. This month I received a deposit of $455.75 from the VA, and DFAS reduced my pension deposit from $3,566 to $3,110.25. My income didn’t change but my taxable income dropped and my income taxes will drop a little.
I submitted my fully-developed VA claim in February 2016 and the first compensation deposit arrived in June. However, the compensation effectively started in February. The VA and DFAS will sort out that accounting between their systems, and next year I’ll receive an IRS Form 1099-R that (hopefully) shows my taxable pension income is roughly $4,891 lower.
The net effect of the monthly $455.75 tax-free compensation and the offset of my pension means that in the 25% income-tax bracket I’m effectively saving $114/month in federal taxes. Hawaii doesn’t tax military pensions so that’s the only financial change.
What I’m Doing with the Compensation
$114/month may not seem like much for all of the effort that goes into preparing and filing a VA claim. However, the monthly compensation is adjusted for inflation (just like a military pension and Social Security). Over the next 30 years of my life that could compound at 5% APY to nearly $100K in today’s dollars, and the inflation adjustment means that in 30 years it’ll have the same buying power.
This is the classic case of “found money”, so every month I’m transferring $114 to a personal brokerage account. I’ll invest it aggressively in small-cap value stocks and international dividend-paying stocks. 5% APY should be a reasonable (yet volatile) compounding target.
Both my father and his father developed dementia later in life. My Dad has dealt with Alzheimer’s for eight years and my grandfather lived with dementia for nearly two decades. I’m in my 50s, which is the typical age at which people start pricing long-term care insurance policies. In my experience the claims process is horrible and long-term care insurance policies are not financially sustainable. Instead of buying long-term care insurance, this money will supplement our self-insurance fund.
If I ever use another VA home loan, the mortgage’s funding fee will be waived. It took me over a decade to understand that I should file my disability claim, and we refinanced our mortgage several times during those years. I might have missed out on thousands of dollars of cheaper financing.
Correcting the Errors in My VA Disability Award
The eBenefits account also displays my family data. When I filed my claim at the DAV VSO’s office we completed a dependent verification form with my spouse’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number.
To my chagrin, someone mangled my spouse’s information: the eBenefits account showed the wrong birthdate and a missing letter in our last name.
Luckily, her Social Security number is correct so there was still a valid link to the DEERS dependent eligibility database. However, I could easily imagine that an audit (months or even years later) would somehow decide that the database entry was invalid. Not only would that reduce my compensation, but the VA might try to recoup the earlier payments.
Luckily the solution was straightforward: I filled out the VA form to resubmit the information for my spouse. I sent that with a cover letter to the VSO who put it back into the system. A month later the data on eBenefits is still wrong, but the site also shows that the information has been received. I’ll be able to see the update when it’s been processed.
From everything I’ve read, this claim was approved very quickly. Part of that might have been using the “fully developed claim” process. Another part of it is all the advice I got from the VSO and the prep work that we did before filing the claim. (We’d already decided what was worth claiming and what was not.) And finally, part of it might be due to filing a claim at a slower time of year.
My last step in the claim process (I hope) will be requesting a copy of the file: my “C-file”. Eventually, I’ll receive a copy of everything the VA has in my file, and if there are any other errors then I can correct or appeal them. Most importantly, if the VA happens to lose any of my records then I’ll be able to provide a copy from my digital archive.
Regrettably, another reason for filing this claim is to establish a disability baseline. Eventually, my knees (or my hips or my ankles) are going to get those joints into the 20% disability rating. My hearing might continue its decline (despite my rigorous use of hearing protection) and raise that disability rating. The “good” news is that I’ve already done the hard work of filing the claim, and if my physical condition deteriorates then it’s easier to update the existing claim with the new information.
Finally, treating the disability condition is an important factor of a claim. (Otherwise, the VA doctor might consider the problem “cured” and no longer disabling.) I can’t magically rebuild my knee cartilage but I’ve recently completed six weeks of physical therapy. I’ve learned better ways to use the muscles around the joints when I walk, stand, and climb steps. I’m using a stability ball and a foam roller to practice new skills and to treat the inevitable soreness.
- Start your VA disability claim while you’re leaving active duty.
- Use a VSO. (It’s free!) If necessary, have a spouse or friend accompany you every time you talk to the VSO or the doctor. Ask questions, take notes, and even (with their permission) record the discussions.
- If possible, use the fully-developed claim process. Track down all of the records yourself so that you don’t have to wait on the VA.
Read and understand the disability benefits questionnaires so that you know what you should claim and what isn’t considered a disabling condition.
- Show up for the VA doctor’s compensation & pension exams. Take leave if necessary. Make it easy for them to understand and document your symptoms.
- Use the eBenefits account as much as possible. Paper applications take longer to process and might not be routed correctly.
- If you have tinnitus symptoms then claim it.
- Most importantly, continue your treatment for your disability condition.
How NOT To Do It: Applying For VA Disability Years After Military Separation
Reader post: Lessons I Learned Filing For Disability Benefits
Reader post: Education And The Disabled Veteran
Reader post: Preparing For The Unexpected
Why You File Your Veterans Disability Claim (Not Just How)
What Happens When (Not Just How) You File Your VA Disability Claim
What The VA Really Does With Your Disability Claim