Veterans’ Benefit Advisors: Types of Assistance, Pros & Cons & Fees

Last updated: November 30, 2021

 

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
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, Aid & Attendance Pension, Housebound Pension), disability compensation, and burial benefits, for 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.

 Trying to Determine Eligibility?
To determine if you or a loved one is eligible for a VA Pension, use this fast and free VA Pension Eligibility Tool.

Assist with the Application Process
Veterans benefit consultants are able to assist in every step of the application process. They ensure applicants submit the correct VA forms, which includes additional forms that need to be submitted with the application. They make sure all of the paperwork is complete and correct prior to submission. They assist in gathering required documentation, such as proof of wartime service, service discharge papers, 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. VA benefit advisors also ensure that the application and documentation are submitted to the correct location.

Assist with Restructuring Finances
VA pension planners can assist applicants in restructuring finances if their net worth (assets plus annual income) is too high for pension benefits. The VA’s net worth limit, effective December 1, 2021 – November 30, 2022, is $138,489. For married veterans, this includes the income and assets of one’s spouse.

There is a 36-month look back period for applicants of needs-based benefits. For the 36-months immediately preceding one’s application, all past asset transfers will be reviewed. If assets were given away or sold for less than fair market value, it was considered done to meet the VA’s net worth limit. Persons who violate the look back rule are penalized with a period of benefit ineligibility. Veterans benefit advisors can help restructure assets without violating the look-back period.

Benefit planners can also offer assistance in calculating an applicant’s income, as they are aware of what is counted and not counted as income. 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 their 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. As mentioned above, income is considered part of one’s net worth. Deducting unreimbursed medical expenses from one’s income also reduces their net worth.

Appeal a VA Decision
Even post-application, professional VA planners can be of assistance. If 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 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, which is a meeting in which one’s case is decided.

 Important: It is against federal law for veterans’ benefits advisors to charge a fee for a consultation or for assisting in filing an initial application for VA benefits.

 

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. 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. When searching for a VA planner, various names are used other than the ones listed below, further causing confusion.

  In short, if you know what benefit you are seeking and know you are eligible, find a VSO. If you have been denied, find a Veteran’s Advocate, otherwise find a VA Pension Planner. Start here.

 

Veterans Service Officers

Veterans Services Officers (VSOs) are VA accredited benefits advisors. “Accredited” means that person 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, 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 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. 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

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. 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, 2020 and is granted the pension on February 12, 2021. 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. As with the other two categories of VA benefit planners, some pension planners are VA accredited. Again, 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 their services, it is imperative to ensure they are 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?

It is recommended one consult a veterans’ benefit advisor when applying for VA benefits unless they are certain of the benefits for which they would like to apply and the associated application process. Follows is a list of reasons why persons reach out to a VA planner.

Uncertainty as to Available Benefits
Many veterans and surviving spouses are unsure of the benefits for which they might be eligible. They do not take advantage of them simply because they are uninformed. In addition, receipt of one VA benefit might disqualify one from another VA benefit and/or Medicaid. Therefore, it’s best to seek counsel to ensure the best course of action is taken.

Confusion as to the Application Process
While the application process might seem straightforward, many people unknowingly make simple mistakes on the application. This can lead to a delay of benefits or a denial of benefits altogether. Not filling out the application in its entirety, not correctly listing all sources of income, or even something as simple as writing “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 are knowledgeable as to what documentation is needed and how 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.

Income and/or Net Worth are too High / Preserving the Medicaid Option
Applicants who are over the income and/or net worth 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 become eligible without becoming ineligible for Medicaid. (Financial eligibility requirements for Medicaid are generally stricter than they are for VA benefits). VA planners can also 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 would be eligible.

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 VA’s denial of benefits and to possibly overturn the decision. 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 (NCPC) maintains a list of county VSO here.

Veterans’ Advocate – The National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates 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.