By June A. Schroeder, RN, CFP
The VA Improved Pension is so underused and unknown that I didn't know about it—and I am married to a retired Army Major! One of my high school buddies told me about it when she discovered through a care assessment company that her mother was eligible and could be receiving the maximum benefit for a surviving spouse—over $900 per month.
The amazing thing about the VA Improved Pension is that you don't have to be retired or even have long years of service to qualify. The veteran needs to have been in service for at least 90 days of active duty with 1 day occurring during a period of war and have been discharged honorably.
The VA's goal with this program is to help those in financial need. Their operating manual states that: "The VA's income-based programs are intended to give beneficiaries a minimum level of financial security. They are not intended to protect substantial assets or build up the beneficiary's estate for the benefit of the heirs." However, the VA is not required to tell veterans about any of these benefits and some of those whom you talk to at your local Department of Veterans Affairs might not know about it, either.
There are three tiers to this Special Improved Pension, each with its own maximum countable income level and benefits for single and married veterans. Countable income is the amount of income a veteran or surviving spouse receives each year, AFTER deducting all unreimbursed, recurring health care expenses. This includes assisted living costs, home health care, insurance premiums, Medicare premiums, ongoing prescriptions and more. Net worth is also considered on the date of application, and there is currently no look-back like there is with Medicaid.
Level one is Basic Pension available for those with the lowest income. Level two is Housebound Benefits and is for those with a physician certifying the applicant is in need of some daily help. Level three allows the highest countable income, provides the highest benefit and is called Aid & Attendance (A&A). The Improved Pension for A&A "may be granted when the veteran or their surviving spouse requires the regular attendance of another person to assist in eating, bathing, dressing and undressing or taking care of the needs of nature. It also includes individuals who are blind or a patient in a nursing home because of mental or physical incapacity. Assisted care in an assisting living facility also qualifies."
Please note that it includes "surviving spouses," which means that even if the eligibile veteran is deceased, their widow or widower can receive benefits. These benefits are designed to be paid to the veteran alone, the veteran with a dependent, a surviving spouse or a surviving spouse with a dependent.
There is quite a lot of paperwork involved and it can be daunting, especially when you are under stress or for family members who don't know where to find the forms and important documents! The list includes the discharge/separation papers, net worth, medical bills, and income statements, just to name a few.
Since this pension is not well known, there are companies that offer to file the pension application for free or for a high fee, in hopes of selling you their other services. My high school buddy fell victim to one of them. She paid over $2,000 for help that she could have gotten for free. It may take as long as 11 months to get approved, depending on the VA's workload, but benefits are paid retroactively to the date of application.
June Schroeder is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with Liberty Financial Group in Wisconsin, and she is also a Registered Nurse. She served for 7 years as the Director of Economic Security for the Wisconsin Nurses Association, making her uniquely qualified for her role as a certified financial planner.