Aug. 13, 2020
Countless family caregivers help aging veterans and surviving spouses apply for veterans benefits and manage their payments. Qualifying for VA benefits is usually the primary concern for veterans and their caregivers, however there are several areas of confusion that can significantly impact the way families interact with the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Whether you’re looking to help an aging loved one apply for veterans benefits and/or manage their payments and VA health care, the following tips are crucial to successfully navigating the VA system and ensuring loved ones get the VA benefits they're eligible for.
5 Things to Know When Applying for and Managing VA Benefits
The VA doesn’t recognize power of attorney (POA).
This revelation often comes as a shock to family caregivers who are used to hearing about how important it is for seniors to draft durable power of attorney documents for health care and finances, naming agents to act on their behalf in these matters. However, the VA sets its own strict rules for recognizing power of attorney. (Much like the Social Security Administration does not recognize financial POA for managing another beneficiary’s benefits.)
If a veteran is still competent and simply wishes for a person, such as a family member, to handle their claim for benefits, then they can complete VA Form 21-22a to appoint them as their one-time representative. Similarly, a competent VA beneficiary may use VA Form 21-0845 to designate an authorized third party to receive information contained in their VA record, but this authorization does not grant the ability to manage or change any information therein.
If a veteran (or related beneficiary) is incapable of managing their own financial affairs, a durable power of attorney for finances is insufficient in the eyes of the VA. Whether the beneficiary is just now applying for benefits or they have been receiving them for decades, a VA fiduciary must be appointed to receive and manage their VA benefit payments. Incompetence must be documented by a medical professional or determined by a court of competent jurisdiction.
A family member or friend typically serves as one’s fiduciary, but they must pass a thorough vetting process conducted by the VA. This evaluation includes a criminal background check, credit report check, personal interview and review of character references. In cases where a veteran does not have a trusted individual who can serve in this capacity, the VA will appoint a professional fiduciary.
You can expedite a VA application.
The VA has specific rules in place to expedite the applications and appeals of veterans and survivors who are terminally ill, of advanced age or experiencing serious financial hardship (homelessness, bankruptcy, etc.). If any of these conditions apply, make sure that the VA office handling the application or appeal is aware of this by filing a written request for priority processing along with their other paperwork. An expedited determination isn’t guaranteed, but it can’t hurt to provide the VA with all information pertaining to a claimant’s medical and financial situation.
You don’t have to be ill to qualify for a VA pension.
One little-known element of the VA pension program is that when a veteran turns 65, they are considered 100 percent disabled in the eyes of the VA. This means that a vet or their surviving spouse with low income and limited assets could be eligible for a pension, even if they have no major health conditions. Of course, increased pension amounts are available through the Aid & Attendance and Housebound benefit programs for eligible veterans and surviving spouses who are ill, disabled and/or require higher levels of care.
Current VA benefits end when a veteran dies.
If a veteran dies before their dependent(s), any pension or disability compensation benefits they had been receiving will stop. A completely new application must be submitted to the VA for new types of benefits intended for veterans’ survivors and dependents.
Along with a death certificate, the survivors must supply all additional documentation required for the specific benefits they are looking to apply for or reinstate. Necessary paperwork might include the deceased veteran’s discharge papers, marriage certificate, information regarding income, assets and expenses, a physician’s statement detailing the survivor’s medical diagnosis and ability to care for themselves, and a statement from their long-term care provider (assisted living community, home care agency, etc.) detailing their cost of care information.
Even if these documents were already submitted to the VA, they must all be re-sent after a veteran dies. It can take time for the VA to process applications for benefits like the Survivors pension, so it’s important to be prepared and start the paperwork as soon as possible.
Calling the VA can be tricky.
When calling the VA to ask questions or check the status of an application, make sure you’re talking to the local VA office that services the area or region in which the veteran or surviving spouse lives. Be aware that the VA phone number (1-800-827-1000) automatically routes callers to the local VA office that’s nearest to them. For long-distance caregivers, this routing process is most likely not connecting to the same office that is handling a loved one’s application or VA record. If you are directed to a different VA office, you won’t be able to obtain any information. The individual offices are not allowed to pull files on beneficiaries or applicants who do not live in their jurisdiction.
If you don’t feel like spending time on the phone, the VA also offers a comprehensive online platform at VA.gov, where veterans and survivors can file claims, check the status of claims and appeals, manage health care benefits and more.