What VA Pension Planners Do
VA pension planners, also called veterans benefit advisors, veterans benefit consultants, and VA specialists, assist veterans and their surviving spouses in a wide variety of ways.
Provide Information about Benefits
First, VA advisors bring awareness to the availability of all veterans’ benefits, such as veterans’ health care, pensions (i.e., Veterans Pension, Survivor’s Death Pension, Pension, Housebound Pension), disability compensation, and burial benefits, in which veterans or their survivor spouses might be eligible. Since receiving certain veterans’ benefits may disqualify one from other VA benefits or from Medicaid, professional planners can help veterans and surviving spouses make informed decisions as to which benefits will serve them best.
Assist with the Application Process
Veterans benefit consultants are able to assist in every step of the application process. First, they ensure applicants submit the correct VA forms, as there are often additional forms that need to be submitted with the application. They make sure that the paperwork is completely and correctly filled out, and they assist in gathering required documentation, such as proof of wartime service, a copy of one’s service discharge papers, a copy of one’s marriage certification, and evidence of unreimbursed medical costs, like health insurance premiums, home health care, adult day care, or the cost of other long-term care, such as assisted living or nursing home care. In addition, VA benefit advisors ensure that the application and documentation are submitted to the correct location.
Assist with Restructuring Finances
VA pension planners can also assist applicants in restructuring finances if one’s assets (net worth) are too high. In September of 2018, the VA released new rules (effective 10/18/18), including a net worth income limit. While previously there was no published asset limit, there will now be a clear asset limit of $123,600 for 2018 and 2019.
There will also be a 36-month look back period for applicants of needs-based benefits. What this means is that for the 36-months immediately preceding one’s application, all past asset transfers will be reviewed. If assets have been given away or sold for less than fair market value, it is considered this was done in an attempt to meet the VA’s net worth limit, and a period of ineligibility for benefits will result. Therefore, veterans benefit advisors can help restructure net worth without violating the look-back period.
As far as income is concerned, benefit planners can also offer assistance in calculating an applicant’s income and bring awareness to what is counted as income and what is not counted. With VA benefits, unreimbursed (not paid for by insurance) medical expenses can be deducted from one’s income, effectively lowering one’s “countable income”. VA planners are well versed in what is considered an unreimbursed medical expense and can make sure applicants deduct all eligible medical expenses from one’s income. Not only does this help to lower one’s “countable income”, in some cases, such as for VA pensions, it can also maximize one’s monetary benefit. Another important note with the new VA rules effective 10/18/18 is that income, minus unreimbursed medical expenses, will now be considered part of one’s net worth.
Appeal a VA Decision
Even post-application, professional VA planners can be of assistance. In the case that an application for benefits is denied, a VA planner can review the claim for benefits, the reason for denial, and advise the veteran or surviving spouse if he/she thinks an appeal should be made. If so, the veteran’s planner can assist in gathering evidence (such as a physician’s statement of disability) in support of one’s claim for benefits and submit it with the appeal paperwork. They can also provide representation at personal hearings (a meeting in which one’s case is decided).
Different Types of VA Planners
For the purpose of this article, there are three main types of VA planners: Veterans Service Officers, Veterans Advocates, and Veterans Pension Planners. Please note, many of the services provided by the different types of VA planners overlap, and there isn’t always a clear distinction between the types of planners. In addition, when searching for a VA planner, various names are used other than the ones listed below, further causing confusion.
Veterans Service Officers
Veterans Services Officers (VSOs) are VA accredited benefits advisors. “Accredited” means that persons can legally represent veterans and surviving spouses before the Department of Veterans Affairs. In other words, accreditation by the VA allows VSOs to make VA claims for applicants on their behalf.
VSOs can offer assistance nearly every step of the way in the VA application process, from shedding light on available VA benefits to appealing a denial of benefits. However, it’s important to note, VSOs are not able to assist in the restructuring of finances to meet financial eligibility requirements.
VSOs are generally employed and paid a salary by local or state government agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affair, the American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). VSOs are paid a salary by their employer and do not charge a fee to veterans or their surviving spouses for their services. Said another way, the assistance of a VSO is free for claimants. Of course, the downside of working with a VSO is that because they are free, they tend to have heavy workloads and might not be as responsive as a fee-based planner. Delays in receiving benefits can mean lost money to applicants.
Veterans advocates may be licensed attorneys or claims agents, many of which are VA accredited, meaning they are legally able to represent veterans and their surviving spouses. Please note, a designation of VA accreditation does not mean a planner is more competent than a planner who is not accredited. It simply gives the accredited individual a legal designation.
Veterans advocates assist when a VA claim has been denied. For instance, if a veteran or surviving spouse is denied benefits, veterans advocates can assist in both assessing why a claim was denied and contesting the denial. Unfortunately, the appeal process is not only long, but also complex. With the assistance of a veterans advocate, one can be certain that no essential part of the process is skipped.
The cost of assistance from a veterans advocate varies widely. Some agencies do not charge a fee, but will take between 20% and 33% of awarded retroactive benefits, sometimes called “back pay”. As an example, say a veteran files an Aid & Attendance pension claim on August 7, 2017 and is granted the pension on February 12, 2018. Upon award of the pension, the VA will pay the veteran pension payments for the six months between filing the claim and award of the pension. In situations where Veterans Advocates earn a percentage of retroactive benefits, if a veteran or surviving spouse is not awarded benefits, the benefits planner does not make any money. Other veterans’ advocates charge by the hour or simply charge a flat rate for their services.
Veterans Pension Planners
Veterans pension planners often are financial planners/advisors or attorneys but can also be independent VA specialists. Like with the other two categories of VA benefit planners, some pension planners are VA accredited. (This is a legal term, which simply means the planner is legally able to represent their client before the VA). VA pension planners can provide education in regards to available VA pensions and also are able to assist with restructuring finances to meet eligibility requirements and maximize monetary benefits. Some pension planners may also assist in the VA benefits application process.
The cost of assistance for veterans pension planners varies. Some pension planners may not charge client fees and are instead paid via referrals. If using a pension planner that does not charge for his/her services, it is imperative to ensure he/she is invested in the best interest of the client. Other pension planners may charge a set legal fee for the restructuring of assets and implementing financial planning strategies.
When Do You Need a VA Planner?
Consulting a veterans’ benefit advisor is generally always a good idea for persons applying for veterans’ benefits, unless they are certain of the benefits in which they would like to apply and are certain of the application process. Follows is a list of reasons why one might want to reach out to a VA planner.
Uncertainty as to Benefits that are Available
Unfortunately, many veterans and surviving spouses are unsure of what benefits in which they might be eligible and do not take advantage of them simply because they are not aware of them. In addition, receipt of one VA benefit might disqualify one from another VA benefit and/or from receiving Medicaid. Therefore, it’s best to seek counsel to ensure one is taking the best course of action.
Confusion with Regards to the Application Process
While one may think the application process is straightforward, many people unknowingly make simple mistakes on the application. This can lead to a delay of benefits or a denial of benefits altogether. For instance, not completely filling out the application, not listing all sources of income correctly, or even something as simple as putting “non-applicable” rather than “$0” on the application, can put a hiccup in the application process.
Need Assistance Gathering Documentation
Gathering all of the required documentation to be submitted with a claims application can be difficult. Veterans planners not only know exactly what type of documentation is needed, but also how to to get it.
You Want to Maximize the Pension Amount
Certain mistakes made on an application can affect the amount of one’s pension benefit amount. For instance, not listing all unreimbursed medical expenses can result in either a denial of pension benefits or a lower benefit amount than one is eligible.
Income and/or Assets are too High / Preserving the Medicaid Option
Applicants who are over the income and/or asset limit(s) should not automatically assume they cannot meet the financial eligibility requirements for VA benefits. Many VA pension planners specialize in restructuring assets so that applicants can meet the asset eligibility limit without becoming ineligible for Medicaid. (The eligibility requirements for Medicaid are generally stricter than they are for VA benefits). Also, as previously mentioned, VA planners can help to ensure that all eligible unreimbursed medical expenses are used towards lowering one’s countable income. Without properly restructuring assets and deducting unreimbursed medical expenses, one might be ineligible for VA benefits when they otherwise wouldn’t be ineligible.
As mentioned above, in September of 2018, the VA released new rules in regards to one’s income and assets. These rules, which set an asset limit of $123,600, has income minus unreimbursed medical expenses counted as assets, and sets forth a 36-month asset look back period for applicants, will become effective 10/18/18. With the new rules, which offer more restrictions than ever before, it is all the more reason to seek advice from a VA benefits consultant.
Your Claim is Denied
Denial of a claim for VA benefits does not mean that one should give up. The appeal process allows veterans and surviving spouses to disagree with the decision the VA made and to possibly overturn the decision. As mentioned previously, this is a complicated, time-consuming process. Veterans’ advocates are well versed in this process and offer the best chance of a decision being overturned.
Find a Professional VA Planner
Veterans Service Officers – the National Care Planning Council maintain a list of county VSO here.
Veterans’ Advocate – The National Organization of Veterans’ Advocate maintain a searchable database of its members here.
Veterans’ Pensions Planners – This organization has created a form to connect individuals with Veterans Pension Planners. One can start here.