Applying for Veterans Benefits: Tips for Caregivers and Spouses
"What are the VA benefits for veterans and their caregivers, and how do I know if my loved one is eligible?"
Believe it or not, this is the most common question caregivers ask Debbie Burak, founder of veteranaid.org, about applying for veterans benefits. As the daughter of a WWII veteran, Burak is intimately familiar with the challenges that caregivers face when dealing with the VA. For nine years, she looked after parents who never had enough money to pay for their care needs. It was only after years of scraping together every dollar they could find that Burak discovered her parents had been entitled to approximately $165,000 in VA benefits that they'd never received.
"I'll never forget the expression on Mom's face when she realized the money she desperately needed was never going to come," Burak laments. The experience, as devastating as it was, inspired her to advocate for aging and ailing veterans, and to create a website that provides information for veterans and their caregivers.
Eligibility may be the primary concern for many caregivers, but there are several other areas of confusion and misinformation that could significantly impact the finances of people seeking to obtain Veterans benefits:
The VA Doesn't Recognize Power of Attorney (POA)
"A POA is worthless to the VA," says Burak. "It has no standing, no merit." This revelation often comes as a shock to caregivers who are used to hearing about the necessity of getting a POA as part of planning ahead for elderly care. In order to manage a legally incompetent veteran's financial affairs, an individual must be officially appointed as the veteran's fiduciary, according to Burak.
You Can Expedite a VA Application
The VA has specific rules in place to expedite the applications of people age 90 and older. If your loved one is in this age group, make sure that the VA office that's handling their application is aware of this.
You Don't Have to Be Ill to Qualify for Aid & Attendance
One little-known element of the VA program is that when a veteran turns 65 they are considered 100 percent disabled in the eyes of the VA. This means that they could be eligible for the lowest level of Aid & Attendance assistance, even if they have no major health conditions.
Benefits End when a Veteran Dies
If a veteran dies before their spouse, any Veteran Aid & Attendance Improved Pension benefits being received by the couple will immediately cease. "People are just devastated to learn this because they're grieving and trying to make arrangements, and now they get to sit down and play the VA shell game all over again," she says. The "shell game" Burak is referring to is the one that requires the surviving spouse to submit a completely new application to the VA to get their benefits reinstated.
Along with a death certificate, the surviving spouse (or their caregiver) must supply additional information and documents, including the deceased spouse's discharge papers; their marriage certificate; information regarding their income, assets and expenses; a physician's statement that details the surviving spouse's medical diagnosis and whether or not they can take care of themselves; and a statement from their long-term care provider (assisted living community, home care agency, etc.) that details their new cost of care information.
Even if these documents have already been submitted to the VA, they all must be re-sent after a veteran dies. According to Burak, the average time to award a widow's pension is 10-12 months after it's been submitted, so it's important to start this process as soon as possible after a veteran passes.
Calling the VA's 1-800 Number
Burak has another tip for caregivers who call the VA to check on a loved one's application status. Make sure you're talking to the local VA office that services the area in which your loved one lives. Be aware that the 1-800 number for the VA automatically routes a caller to the VA office that's nearest to them. For long-distance caregivers, this is most likely not the same office that's in charge of their loved one's account. If the VA office they're directed to is not the same one that's handling their loved one's application, the caregiver won't be able to obtain any information since VA offices are not allowed to pull files on beneficiaries or applicants who do not live in their area.