VA Benefits for Family Members

            There are many benefits available to family members of deceased veterans. Two of these are Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and death compensation. Both are available if the veteran’s death was service connected.  If granted, these programs pay the survivor a monthly, tax-free benefit.  Go to https://www.va.gov/disability/survivor-dic-rates to find current rates.

            DIC is for survivors of veterans who died on or after January 1, 1957, and death compensation is for survivors of veterans who died before that date.  Because most people are looking into benefits related to veterans who died after January 1, 1957, this blog will focus on DIC. 

            There are some circumstances under which the VA will consider the veteran’s death service connected, even if it wasn’t, and grant DIC.  Under the “ten-year rule,” if the veteran’s disability was rated by the VA as totally disabling for at least ten years before his death, it will be treated as service connected and survivors’ benefits will be granted.  For the “five-year rule” to kick in, the veteran’s disability must be rated totally disabling by the VA for at least five years from the date of the veteran’s discharge or other release from active duty.  The “one- year rule” applies when the veteran was a former prisoner of war and the disability was continuously rated totally disabling for at least one year before his death.  The term “totally disabling” means the veteran’s rating is 100% or she is in receipt of VA Unemployability.  (For more information about VA ratings, read my blog “VA Ratings: What Are They And How Do They Work?” and “VA Unemployability: What Is It And How Can a Veteran Get It?”).  Here are the links: https://veteranspractice.com/2019/07/17/va-ratings-what-are-they-and-how-do-they-work and https://veteranspractice.com/2019/09/20/va-unemployability-what-is-it-and-how-can-a-veteran-get-it.

            To apply for DIC, the survivor submits VA Form 21P-534 if they are a spouse or child and VA Form 21P-535 if they are a parent. Both forms are available online.  If the wrong form is used it’s okay because the VA is required to interpret ANY application on ANY document submitted to either VA or Social Security that shows the person wants to apply for survivors’ benefits as an application for DIC.  Sorry about the ALL-CAPS but this is important to keep in mind.  Many survivors don’t realize when they apply for survivors benefits through Social Security that they are ALSO applying for DIC and the VA MUST entertain that application and grant DIC if warranted.

            There is no deadline to apply for DIC but if the application is submitted within one year of the veteran’s death, the VA will pay the survivors’ benefits back to the first day of the month after the veteran’s death.  If the application goes in after that one-year mark, the VA will award DIC back to the first day of the month after the month they received it.  For example: the survivor applies for DIC on November 15, 2020, which is more than one year after the veteran died, so the VA will pay the survivor back to December 1, 2020, if the application is approved.

            When the rules I described in the second paragraph of this blog don’t apply, it must be shown that one or more of the veteran’s service-connected conditions caused or contributed to her death. The first place to look is the death certificate.  If a condition the veteran was service connected for is listed as a cause of death, the VA should grant the benefits without much problem.  If not, it’s time to think outside the box and determine if a service-connected condition contributed to the cause of death.  For example, in a well-known case, (El-Amin v. Shinseki) the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims decided the veteran’s service connected post-traumatic stress disorder aggravated his non-service connected alcoholism, which caused or contributed to his death from cirrhosis, and granted the survivors’ benefits.  Another example is if the veteran died of a disease or illness that was not service connected, but had diabetes or another condition that was service connected.  If it can be shown, with the help of doctors, family members, etc. that the diabetes or other condition made it more difficult for the veteran to overcome the fatal illness, the VA will grant survivors’ benefits.                

            Of course, in order to take advantage of these benefit programs, the person applying must be an eligible family member.  This is actually more complicated than you might think!  In the interest of not making this the length of a Harry Potter novel, I decided to cover this topic in another blog I will post in the near future, so please stay tuned for that.  In the meantime, if you have any questions for me, please reach out.  All too often survivors of veterans find it difficult to get the help and answers they need to get the benefits they deserve.  I am happy to help if I can!   

            As always, thanks for reading.

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