I want to file a claim for service-connected compensation. I have been told I can get help from a service organization, an attorney and some type of agent. I am sooooooo confused. Can you straighten this out for me?
It is important to remember that applying for, and establishing entitlement to, VA benefits can often times be a challenging endeavor. A successful claim usually requires knowledge of the specific benefits that the VA offers, an understanding of applicable laws, regulations and VA policies, knowing what kind of evidence is necessary to support your claim and how to submit appropriate evidence. Even if the VA has granted your claim, you will still need to know whether the VA has granted you everything you are entitled to. While this guide will assist you in understanding what a claim for VA benefits involves, it is not a substitute for assistance from a qualified and trained service officer, agent or attorney.
There is absolutely no reason why you could not handle your own claim. Many veterans have successfully won their own claim without any assistance from anybody. The veterans who have been successful frequently have a professional background in law, medicine or compliance and they have the requisite knowledge and ability to conduct legal research. In addition to having the background just as importantly they have the time to invest in learning everything they can about the often complex and convoluted VA system.
Although you could have almost anybody represent you most veterans opt for one of three primary avenues of representation which includes service officers, claims agents and attorneys. Service officers, also known as service representatives, are individuals who are employees or volunteers of a recognized veterans service organization or a state or county department of veterans affairs. Service officers through their experience, education and training have been recognized, or accredited, by the VA as having the ability to represent claimants against the VA in the prosecution of their claims.
Another less used option veterans can use is a registered claims agent. Registered claims agents are also able to represent claimants seeking VA benefits. Claims agents are non-attorneys who have been authorized by the VA to represent claimants. Before they are officially recognized they must successfully complete a background investigation and show they are of good moral character. Additionally they must pass a VA examination with a score of 75% or more. Unlike service officers, agents like attorneys, may charge a fee for their services in certain situations.
Due to relatively recent legislation, attorneys are now able to represent claimants and appellants for a fee after a notice of disagreement has been filed. Historically, restrictions on the representation of veterans for benefits by attorneys extends back to the American Civil War. During this era Congress strictly limited and controlled the fees that an attorney or a claims agent could charge a claimant seeking benefits from the Pension Bureau. By enacting these restrictions Congress sought to protect veterans from unscrupulous attorneys and agents.
In the latter half of the 19th century, there were little, if any, licensing requirements or ethical review boards overseeing attorneys and agents. As a result, attorneys and agents were legally prevented from charging more than five, and then, ten dollars to represent a veteran. It must also be remembered that during the early days of veterans benefits, representation primarily consisted of the completion of the appropriate forms. Whereas today, a claim for VA benefits can be akin to filing a suit for medical malpractice requiring expert medical evidence and historical research and all of the other trappings of semi-complex litigation.
The prohibition on attorneys and agents remained relatively consistent until 1988 and the passage of the Veterans Judicial Review Act (VJRA). The VJRA provided additional judicial review of VA denials through the creation of the Court of Veterans Appeals, which later became the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC or Court). The VJRA provided for some attorney representation with fees in excess of the ten dollar limit imposed over one hundred years prior.
With the passage of the VJRA, an appellant who received a final decision from the Board was able hire an attorney for representation before the CAVC and beyond if necessary. In these instances claimants were also able to hire attorneys for additional representation before the Board and the VAROs in the event of a remand. The result was that some veterans were able to utilize attorneys, and the attorneys received fees in excess of ten dollars, while other veterans were not.
Luckily for claimants and appellants for VA benefits this all began to change in December 2006 when Public Law 109-461, the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006, was signed into law. Section 101 of the Act amended chapter 59 of title 38 of the United States Code which governs the recognition of individuals for the preparation, presentation and prosecution of claims for VA benefits. Effective June 20, 2007 the Act permits claimants seeking VA benefits to hire and pay an attorney or agent after a Notice of Disagreement has been filed. The VA issued their final implementing rules on May 22, 2008.
No matter who represents you, or helps you with your claim, make absolutely certain you rely upon an individual who knows what they are doing. If you have any doubts talk to other veterans in your area and ask them if they can make any recommendations about who has a good reputation in your local area. Service officers are people just like doctors and lawyers and as we all know some are better than others. Do not settle for a substandard service officer. Remember, you are the veteran and the client and by law you can change your representative any time you wish. Do not let anybody tell you differently.
Additionally if you are unsure if a VA benefit applies to you talk to a qualified representative. Throughout this guide we are talking in general about VA benefits but there are many exceptions which the average veteran may not be aware of. Even if somebody tells you that you are not eligible for a benefit ask that person why and ask them to show you the law, rule or regulation that applies. If they can’t provide you with the requested information do not believe them.
If you have any questions about this topic or any other topic regarding veterans benefits please feel free to contact us at Ask VetsFirst. Ask VetsFirst is a free support service for veterans and their family members. You can find Knowledge Books on a wide range of veterans issues and topics. You can also submit a request and have one of our counselors answer your questions.
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