VA Disability Process

Applying for VA disability benefits is often complex and confusing. This guide outlines the challenges eligible individuals may encounter during their application process.

Active-duty service members or veterans may be eligible for disability benefits if they sustain an injury, illness, or disability during their duty. Service members with pre-existing conditions aggravated during active duty may also be eligible for benefits.

Applying for VA disability compensation is a complex process, but we are here to help you navigate it and understand the various steps in the system.

Beginning Your Claim

To apply for VA disability benefits, you’ll start by determining whether you are eligible. Eligible service members meet both of the below requirements:

  • Have a current illness or injury
  • Served in active duty, active duty training, or inactive duty training

In addition, individuals must meet at least one of the below requirements:

  • Became sick or injured while serving in the military
  • Have a pre-existing condition that worsened as a result of military service
  • Developed a service-connected disability after active-duty service

If you meet these requirements, you can begin a VA disability claim. Individuals who received a dishonorable, bad conduct or any other than honorable discharge may be ineligible for disability benefits. However, you may apply for a discharge upgrade to attempt to qualify for disability compensation.

Active military personnel can also being their application while they are still serving between 90 and 180 days before their discharge. This is called Benefits Delivery at Discharge or BDD

Gathering Evidence

Before beginning a claim, gather all evidence about your illness, injury, or disability. Evidence required to prove your claim may include the following:

  • Any private treatment you have received from non-VA physicians, including your medical chart, laboratory tests, X-rays, or any other documentation concerning your illness, injury, or disability
  • Medical records for treatment obtained at VA medical centers
  • Records concerning a pre-existing condition you had before your medical service if you believe your condition deteriorated as a result of your service

Your evidence must clearly show that your illness, injury, or disability arose in connection with your military service.

Preparing Form 21-526EZ

Most service members can submit their claims using Form 21-526EZ. This form is five pages long, with seven pages of instructions. You must list your personal information, military service details, and information regarding your illness, injury or disability.

Individuals whose circumstances require the use of other forms, such as those filing a supplemental claim or appealing a disability decision given by the VA, must file Form 20-0995.

You can fill out the form online through the VA website, submit it via mail or hand it in at your nearest VA regional office. Once you signify your intention of filing for disability benefits from the VA, you’ll have up to one year to finalize your claim.

The complexities of the form can be overwhelming for some individuals. Assistance may be available from VA-accredited attorneys, claims agents or Veterans Service Officers (VSOs). Accredited individuals don’t charge fees for assisting in an initial filing for disability by service members or veterans unless they are unusual expenses.

Seeking help is an excellent way to streamline your application and ensure you don’t miss any significant factors that could impact your disability claim. These professionals pass an exam and receive regular continuing education to ensure they stay up-to-date with the VA disability benefits program.

Waiting for a Decision

After you submit your claim, you must wait to hear the outcome from the case reviewers at the VA. Sometimes, the VA will request additional information or evidence to support your claim. If they do so, you will receive a letter from them in the mail outlining the required details.

The VA disability benefits review process can be lengthy. As of September 2023, the average claim took about 103.3 days to resolve. The time it takes to process your case depends on several factors, including:

  • Type of claim filed
  • The complexity of your injuries or disabilities
  • Length of time to obtain the necessary documentation to substantiate your claim

While waiting for a decision, keep an eye on your mail for any requests for information about your claim. The VA may ask you to attend an examination with an approved doctor. If so, you’ll want to ensure you are available for the appointment.

Once the VA has thoroughly reviewed your case and made a determination of your eligibility for benefits, you’ll receive a decision in the mail. The decision will indicate whether you qualify for VA disability, the declared percentage of your disability and the monthly compensation you will receive.

If you disagree with the VA’s decision, you can file an appeal through the appeals process.

How does the VA appeal process work?

The VA appeals process changed in 2019. There are three separate appeals channels for decisions made after February 19, 2019.

You can file a supplemental claim if you find new or relevant evidence to support your existing claim. The VA allows you to submit the information yourself, or you may provide the contact details of an organization that can supply the documentation on your behalf.

On average, a supplemental claim requires four to five months for the VA to review and make a decision. To submit a claim, you must fill out Form 20-0995. Included with your claim should be the issue you want the VA to analyze, along with documentation to support the case.

You must submit supplemental claims through the mail or in person at a VA regional office.

Higher-level reviews require a senior reviewer at the VA to review your claim. You do not provide new information or evidence. Instead, the senior reviewer will reassess your original claim. Individuals who choose to appeal via a higher-level review have up to one year following the initial decision of their claim to do so.

Requests for a higher-level review for disability claims can be made online, by mail or in person. If your condition requires a more detailed explanation than you are able to include in your application, you may request a call with a senior reviewer.

The VA advises that higher-level reviews take four to five months to resolve. Individuals who request a call with a senior reviewer may experience longer wait times.

You can request a board appeal following the decision provided on an initial claim, supplemental claim or higher-level review. Individuals have one year following a decision made by the VA to start the board appeal review process.

Board appeals go before judges at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington, D.C. This is the highest level of review you may request. The VA advises individuals who submit board appeals to work with an advocate who can guide them in following the appropriate procedures.

If you request a board appeal, you may ask a judge to review the evidence already provided, submit additional information or request a hearing. Hearings may be online, through a videoconference at a local VA office or in person in Washington, D.C.

You can request a board appeal online, by mail or in person by submitting Form 10182.

How Disability Ratings Work

The VA determines your percentage of disability based on the evidence submitted for your illnesses, injuries or disability. When the VA substantiates your claim, it will assign a disability rating.

You might have more than one disabling condition. In that case, the VA will assess all conditions and list them from most severe to least severe.

The disability percentage assigned by the VA depends on VA disability compensation tables. Disability ratings are always multiples of 10. For example, the VA may consider a veteran 20 percent disabled or 30 percent disabled, but not 25 percent disabled. In the most severe cases, an individual can be 100 percent disabled.

The VA uses your disability rating to calculate how much your monthly disability compensation will be. Other factors, such as the number of dependents you have, may result in additional payment on top of your basic pay.

Receiving Disability Payments

Once you receive a decision on your disability compensation, the VA will deposit monthly payments in the bank account you designated in your original application.

Generally, payments begin within 15 days following the decision. If your contact information or bank details change, you can update your account online through the VA website.

Updating Your Disability Rating

Individuals who obtain disability compensation may find that their situation changes. If your injury, illness or disability improves, it can affect the amount of compensation you are eligible to receive.

Others may find their condition deteriorates and warrants additional payment. If your condition worsens, you can file for a disability increase by filing a new Form 21-526EZ.

The process for filling out Form 21-526EZ is similar to the initial claim process. You can begin the process online or submit your claim through the mail or in person.

If you decide to submit your claim online, the VA’s system will prefill some of the information required for you. You will need to submit evidence of your worsening condition, such as medical records, laboratory tests and statements from friends or family.

You may also be able to receive additional compensation if your family circumstances change. Getting married, having children or caring for an aging parent can all increase your monthly compensation. To add a new dependent, you’ll need to sign in to your account through the VA website and provide the information required to validate your dependent.

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