How to Apply for VA Disability
Military veterans and service members who are injured or become ill during active duty or while completing active or inactive training may be eligible to receive disability pension and other disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
There are several classifications of illness or injury that may be eligible for disability benefits. These include physical problems, mental concerns and exposure to toxic materials or chemicals.
Filing a claim for benefits is usually straightforward. You can complete a claim online or visit your local veterans affairs office for assistance. If your VA disability claim is denied, you may appeal or hire a lawyer with experience in contesting VA disability claims to help you.
How to File a VA Disability Claim
Disability claims fall into two categories: the initial disability claim and a claim for increased disability compensation. For example, if you were exposed to a harmful chemical and developed progressive lung disease, you can apply for a claim increase as your condition progresses.
There are four separate steps to filing for VA disability benefits.
1. Submit Intent to File
The Intent to File initiates your claim, beginning a one-year deadline to submit all of the evidence required to support your claim. In essence, it serves as a notice to the VA that you will file a claim.
It’s important to submit this informal claim as soon as possible, as the submission date will (if you’re approved) be considered your filing date. If your claim is approved, you may be entitled to back pay from the date of filing to the date of approval.
This gives you additional time to collect the necessary medical evidence to support your claim. You won’t have to worry about rushing medical appointments or necessary follow-up treatments, rehabilitation, or physical or occupational therapy. This period also allows you time to check and double-check that your forms are complete and correct, or to ask for help from a veterans service officer if necessary.
You can file your claim online at va.gov, where you can set up an online portal to view the status of your claim and check for updates or requests for information.
Simply initiate the claim, save your personal information and update your file as you collect more information over the course of the year.
People who are actively in the military can file before they leave their service through the BDD program (Benefits Delivery at Discharge) between 90 and 180 days before their discharge.
2. Collect Your Medical Evidence
Medical documentation, including records from the initial diagnosis, follow-up appointments, referrals to specialists and surgical records, is necessary to prove your VA disability claim.
To receive compensation, the evidence must connect your injury, illness or initial contact with a hazardous substance that caused a disease to your military term of service and your activities there.
For example, if you are on active duty but break your arm at a theme park while on leave, you probably won’t be able to claim disability. However, if you break your arm while in active combat or in a training course while serving, your disability claim is more likely to be approved.
If you’re filing a claim for a mental illness you developed during service, such as PTSD, chronic adjustment disorder, anxiety or depression, you’ll need to submit a psychiatrist’s diagnosis of your condition.
You may be asked to obtain statements from your therapist or psychiatrist about the onset of your disorder and how it impacts your ability to work, go to school or perform other daily activities.
The more detailed information you can present, the stronger your claim will be. However, the VA may ask for a second opinion for some diagnoses. You may be required to complete a physical or psychological exam at a VA hospital or medical center as well.
3. Complete and Submit Your Application
Once you’ve collected your evidence, you can complete and submit your claim in one of three ways:
- File through the online portal you created when you submitted your Intent to File.
- File by mail by completing VA Form 21-526EZ and mailing it to the Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Intake Center, P.O. Box 4444, Janesville, WI 53547-4444.
- Submit your claim at your regional VA office in person through a veterans service officer.
Remember that if you don’t submit your completed application within one year of submitting your Intent to File, then you’ll have to start your claim all over again. If this happens, the date you resubmit your claim will be your new filing date, which means that you may lose up to a year of back pay.
4. Submit Any Other Necessary Forms
In some cases, you may need other forms to complete your claim. For example, if your disability has left you largely unable to care for yourself independently, you may also wish to file for Aid and Attendance or the Improved Pension Program, which can help pay for long-term care or accommodations and services in a skilled nursing facility.
If you have a dependent spouse and/or dependent children, they may be eligible for benefits through your disability claim. You will fill out other forms if you wish to apply for these benefits.
Other types of cases that will require additional forms and supporting documentation include:
- Claims from a member of the Reserves or National Guard
- Claims of individual unemployability
- PTSD or PTSD from personal assault
- Specially Adapted Housing or Special Home Adaptation
Suppose that you require a vehicle adaptation to accommodate your disability or a vehicle allowance. In this case, you may need to file a separate claim for those benefits or check with a veterans service officer to see if these requests can be part of your original claim.
What is the Fully Developed Claim process?
The VA launched a program in 2010 called the Fully Developed Claim (FDC) program, which allows some simple claims to be processed quicker.
If you choose this option when applying, you state that no further evidence (medical records, statements from therapists, etc.) will be submitted with your application. This alerts the VA that your claim is ready to be processed and reviewed.
Any type of claim can be filed as a fully developed claim. If you miss your deadline from the Intent to File, for example, you can use this process if you already have your records compiled. Any type of disability claim may be filed as fully developed.
To file an FDC:
- Select the FDC option online when filing your benefits application.
- Include all medical documentation with the claim.
- Indicate that there are no other documents or other material evidence needed to support your claim.
- Attend any medical appointment the VA requires to process or verify your claim.
When you file the fully developed claim, the VA office will receive all of the necessary forms at once and can begin reviewing the claim immediately.
About half of VA claims may be eligible for this fast-track approval process. While this process may require a little more work up front from you, if your disability doesn’t require extensive supporting documentation, an FDC may be a better option, as it may be approved faster than a traditional disability claim.
As of September 2023, the average approval time for a VA disability claim is 103.3 days.
What happens after I file my VA disability claim?
After you file, whether it’s a traditional claim or an FDC, you’ll receive a notice that it’s been received. Next, the claim is reviewed. If no further documentation is necessary to make a decision, it will be approved or denied.
If the VA requires more information, it will contact you. Make sure to submit any additional documentation as fast as possible to settle your claim and start collecting benefits sooner.
If your claim is denied, you have the right to appeal the decision. You may file an appeal on your own or ask an advocate or lawyer experienced with VA claims and appeals for assistance.