If you are a veteran, you may qualify for disability benefits from both the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). According to the SSA, “approximately 621,000 military veterans received disability insurance benefits in 2016.”
To be eligible for VA benefits, including disability compensation, you must have served on active duty, active duty for training or inactive duty training, and have a disability rating for your service-connected condition. The VA approves disability benefits in ten percent increments, from 10% to 100% disabled. Your disability must also be classified as an inservice, preservice or postservice disability, meaning it was caused by or worsened by your military service. Qualifying conditions include, among other things, cardiovascular problems, PTSD and depression. You may not be eligible if your discharge was “other than honorable,” “bad conduct” or “dishonorable.”
Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits are available to veterans suffering from a disabling condition, regardless of its origin. You must meet specific criteria related to your medical condition and work history to be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). You must also be 100% disabled by a condition that keeps you from working, which is comparable to a VA rating of approximately 70 to 100%.
Applying for VA Benefits
If you apply for VA disability benefits after receiving SSD benefits, the VA will consider evidence and records used in the SSA’s decision. The VA states, “As part of the Secretary’s obligation to review a thorough and complete record, VA is required to obtain evidence from the Social Security Administration, including any decisions by the administrative law judge, and to give that evidence appropriate consideration and weight.” The VA doesn’t consider the SSA’s final decision though, because to qualify for VA benefits your disability must be service-related.
VA benefits are not income-based, so receiving SSD will not affect your compensation as a veteran. There is no age limit on your benefits, which you will continue to receive throughout your life.
Applying for SSDI for Veterans
The SSA does not consider the VA’s decision on whether or not you are disabled and eligible for SSDI. This is because you must meet the SSA’s disability definition, which is stricter than the VA’s scale. The SSA does consider evidence used in your VA application if you applied for VA benefits first.
If the VA ruled that your disability rating is 100% permanent and total (P&T) or you are a wounded warrior, you can expedite your claim for SSDI. The SSA does not consider VA disability benefits earned income, so it will not affect your SSDI. Your SSD benefits end at full retirement age, which is currently 66. At this time, you will begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits.
Disabled active duty military members can also apply for SSD benefits if they are unable to work for at least a year.
Appealing a VA Disability or SSDI Decision
Your claim for disability benefits from the SSA or VA can be denied. You can file an appeal if you were denied benefits, if you believe your condition justifies a higher level, or if you believe you qualify for an earlier effective date for the disability. If an existing medical condition worsens, you should file a new application rather than an appeal.
Success Story: Veteran Receives Favorable Decision
After nearly three years, 33-year-old Iraq War veteran and Buffalo resident, Ramon Suarez, Jr., received a favorable decision on his SSD claim with the help of attorney Paul M. Pochepan. When the SSA denied Mr. Suarez’s initial claim in May 2008, he contacted Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys.
Citing the claimant’s age and the nature of his disability, Mr. Pochepan recognized the challenges involved in the case and chose to go ahead with the appeal that summer. “He’s had his share of hardship,” Mr. Pochepan explained.
Already seeking treatment for PTSD and depression brought on by combat experiences in Iraq from 2002 to 2004, Mr. Suarez sustained painful injuries from an automobile accident in May 2007. The accident resulted in cervical spine disc herniations causing spinal cord impingement, lumbar spine disc herniation, and a diagnosis of myofascial pain syndrome, a chronic form of muscle pain.
Mr. Pochepan observed that the automobile accident “triggered a lot of emotional problems based on some of the things [Mr. Suarez] was exposed to in Iraq.” In the months after the accident, Mr. Suarez battled panic attacks and nightmares from his years in the military and decided to apply for SSD benefits in November 2007.
“I had nowhere to go,” he reflected. “There was nothing else I could do.”
The combination of Mr. Suarez’s physical and mental impairments proved sufficient grounds for awarding benefits. The adjudicator stated that the claimant could not sustain a job full time and the hearing in March 2010 resulted in a fully favorable decision. Mr. Suarez, his wife and two children are now also beneficiaries of his successful SSD claim.
Every favorable decision from the SSA comes with the possibility of a periodic review of the claim. This may not occur for years. “There is a higher likelihood the SSA will review his claim,” Mr. Pochepan stated. “They have a tendency to check up on younger people to see if there has been any medical improvement.”
For the moment, however, Mr. Suarez looks forward to a brighter future. “Winning my case felt like a big weight was off my chest. Now, I’m just trying to catch up on bills and stay out of debt.”