Make sure you don’t short-change yourself when filing VA disability claims. Learn how to avoid common mistakes that keep you from getting all the benefits you are entitled to.

The process of filing VA disability claims can be very confusing. If you haven’t started the process yourself, you’ve probably heard stories about the problems with delays and mistakes and lengthy appeals. As you make your way through the process, try to avoid these five common mistakes:

1. Putting off the filing of your claim

One of the biggest mistakes is to put off filing a claim. If you’ve been wondering whether you’re eligible, or waiting to see if your symptoms improve – putting off filing a claim could cost you real money. If you receive an award, either with the first decision or on appeal, the benefits will be paid to you retroactive to the date of your original claim.

It works like unemployment benefits. Even though you may be entitled to receive the weekly payments, you must first claim the benefit. Similarly, you must file your claim to your disability benefits. Depending on the type of disability claim you file (a Fully Developed Claim, or a Standard Claim, for example) find out which form starts the clock for eligibility and get that in as soon as you can.

2. Not listing all of your symptoms

A common mistake is to try to name your condition rather than listing each of the symptoms on VA disability claims. The VA is obligated to follow-up on potential conditions that would cause each symptom you have. If multiple conditions are diagnosed, you receive a disability rating for each separate condition, which will then be combined into a single overall rating.

3. Thinking you’re too young; waiting until you’re older

You may think that if you’re young and can move around okay, that you might let the condition go for now. But if that knee injury or broken arm become arthritic later, you might be glad you applied now.

If the condition is recognized but you’re given a 0% rating now, you can still receive benefits later if the condition worsens, and then you’ll already have the service connection established. If the condition only interferes at a 10% level in your life now, that’s still $127 per month that you’re entitled to, which adds up.

4. Failing to pursue mental health claims

While PTSD tends to get a lot of media attention, and the VA has recently relaxed its evidence requirements for PTSD, many veterans may still be hesitant to seek disability benefits for other mental health conditions. There are a lot of other mental health issues that either occur during military service, or are aggravated by it, that entitle veterans to assistance. These conditions include: Depression, anxiety, amnesia, sleep problems, and panic attacks. If you can show a service connection, mental disorders are rated just like physical conditions, depending on the level of social and occupational impairment.

5. Not realizing there are benefits for a secondary disability

Many vets don’t realize that they are entitled to benefits for disabilities that are secondary to their service-connected disability. This is the case when a service-connected injury or illness either causes a new disabling condition, or aggravates a non-service-connected disability.

One example is a service-connected illness of diabetes, which can lead to other illnesses. Even if the secondary illness doesn’t develop until years later, you are still entitled to benefits if medical evidence or opinion can establish the connection. In some cases, the VA disability claims rating for the secondary disability could be at a higher percentage than was the original disability.

6. Falling for VA Pension Benefit Scams

Learn how to spot common pension benefit scams and protect your pension from shady professionals who claim they are “helping” you.

War-time veterans and their survivors who are in financial need may qualify for Veterans’ Affairs pension benefits. While these funds are intended for those who have sacrificed for our country, sadly, there are scammers who see a pot of money and devise ways to “help” that in reality will cost you more money.

These offers may sound like a good deal but they rarely are. Their pitches are often based on half-truths, so they sound realistic – but they don’t tell you the whole story and they don’t warn you about long-term consequences.

The Federal Trade Commission warns veterans that many of these scammers are attorneys or insurance agents who hold seminars that appear legitimate. Sometimes these seminars are held in assisted living facilities, or advertised in the newspaper.

They will make claims like:

 “We’ll show you – for free ­– how to qualify for your benefits and stay in your home.”

“We guarantee you’ll get your Aid and Attendance pension.”

Their guarantees can sound reassuring, but if they’re charging you money, there’s something in it for them. Be sure to know what you’re qualified for, and you shouldn’t have to give up any of your money to apply and receive a pension that you’ve earned with your service.

Know what you’re eligible for

The first step is to know what you’re eligible for. Veterans over 65 who have low income may qualify for pension benefits, for themselves or their survivors.  Additional benefits may be paid for vets or surviving spouses who require daily assistance, or who are housebound. Veterans’ who have a service-connected disability may qualify for veterans’ disability benefits.

You can apply for pension benefits online with the VA’s online benefits portal or contact your VA Regional Office. There is no application fee and no charge for the forms. To learn more about veterans’ disability benefits, see our other articles on this website. All of these resources are free.

There is no fee to apply for your benefits, and in fact there is a law prohibiting any agent or attorney from charging you to file an application for benefits. There are two important distinctions: First, an attorney can charge a fee to advise you about which benefits you’re eligible for, but once you decide to file, they can’t bill you any further during the initial filing process. Second, an attorney can charge fees to help you appeal if your claim has been denied.

Any professional who helps you with your claim must be accredited by the VA. You can look online at the VA website to see if someone is accredited. The VA accredits three types of professionals to help you complete and file pension claims, so be sure you’re talking to one of these:

  • Representatives from VA-recognized Veterans Service Organizations
  • Independent claims agents
  • Private attorneys

Beware of offers to “help” you qualify for benefits by moving around your assets. While anyone would want to maximize their chances to qualify, within legal limits, these offers can contain several traps. First, you may not actually qualify and may later be required to repay the benefits paid. Second, in shifting assets around to qualify for veterans’ pension you might then be ineligible for Medicaid benefits.

These scammers often try to convince you they can “help” you qualify for supplemental Aid and Attendance benefits by transferring your assets to a trust­.  All of these “deals” contain the same unintended adverse effects for you; meanwhile the scammers gouge you with fees. Experts advise that you be fully informed of the long-term consequences of any offer and consult a trusted VA accredited financial adviser before agreeing to anything,

After you qualify for benefits

Once you qualify to receive benefit payments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) also warns veterans to be weary of any professional who tries to market financial products around your pension benefits, like trusts or annuities.  Annuities for older veterans can create problems, such as tying up your funds and leaving you without access if you need without having to pay a high penalty.

Another scam is to offer you a lump sum payment now in exchange for your future monthly disability or pension benefits.Assigning your benefits is prohibited by law, but scammers find ways to structure the swap to make it look legal. Even if they come up with a legal scheme, a swap will generally not be a good deal. The CFPB offers this scenario to consider: Say you receive $2744 in monthly benefits, and a company offers you a $73,000 lump sum payment now in exchange for your future benefits for 10 years. At the end of 10 years, those benefits added up to a staggering $256,293, which is a 45% interest rate.

Typically, these schemes are sold on a promise to benefit you, but in all cases, you will probably end up with less than you would have. The CFPB recommends that if you need emergency funds talk to a trusted financial expert who can give you objective advice.