Most people know the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides veterans with health care coverage and medical services. But the VA also offers a wide array of other benefits to service members and their families. One such program provides qualifying veterans with a monthly payment to supplement their income. This benefit is known as the Veterans Pension program.
Who’s eligible for the Veterans Pension program?
There are several eligibility requirements that a veteran must meet to qualify for the VA pension. The first and simplest requirement is that a veteran must have received a discharge other than dishonorable. All other requirements are described in detail below.
Wartime service requirements
The veteran must have served at least 90 days of active military, naval, or air service, with at least one day taking place during a recognized period of war. The VA recognizes the following wartime periods:
- Mexican Border Period: May 9, 1916, through April 5, 1917, for veterans who served in Mexico, on its borders, or on adjacent waters
- World War I: April 6, 1917, through Nov. 11, 1918
- World War II: Dec. 7, 1941, through Dec. 31, 1946
- Korean Conflict: June 27, 1950, through Jan. 31, 1955
- Vietnam Era: Nov. 1, 1955, through May 7, 1975, for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period; otherwise Aug. 5, 1964, through May 7, 1975
- Gulf War: Aug. 2, 1990, through a future date to be set by law or Presidential Proclamation
(Veterans who entered active duty after Sep. 7, 1980, must have either served 24 months or the full period for which they were called into active duty with at least one day during a wartime period defined above.)
This pension is intended to supplement the income of financially needy veterans. Therefore, the VA requires applicants to demonstrate their financial need. Prior to Oct. 18, 2018, the VA only used a household income cap to determine if applicants were eligible for pension and, if so, the amount they were eligible to receive. There was no set maximum amount of assets that an applicant could have, which resulted in claims processors inconsistently and arbitrarily approving and denying applications. To eliminate these inconsistencies, the VA switched to using an applicant’s net worth (assets plus annual income) to determine financial eligibility.
The VA chose to use Medicaid’s maximum community spouse resource allowance (CSRA) as the net worth limit for need-based benefits like the Veterans Pension program. As of Dec. 1, 2022, the maximum CSRA is $150,538. Like Social Security benefits and the CSRA, the VA makes an annual cost-of-living adjustment to ensure the net worth limit keeps pace with inflation. In order to qualify for the VA pension, an applicant’s net worth must be less than or equal to the maximum CSRA.
Certain assets aren’t included in the VA’s net worth calculation, such as an applicant’s primary residence of any value (regardless of whether they currently live there, in a family member’s home, or in a long-term care facility) and personal effects that are “consistent with a reasonable mode of life” (e.g., a car, household appliances, furniture). However, there’s a two-acre limit to the size of the lot area upon which an applicant’s primary residence is located. Any additional marketable acreage and properties are considered assets by the VA, which count toward the net worth limit.
The VA also enforces a separate annual household income limit. As with assets, certain sources of income aren’t included in the VA’s calculation. A veteran’s countable income (plus that of any dependents) must be less than a limit set by Congress called the maximum annual pension rate (MAPR).
An applicant’s individual MAPR depends on the type of pension they qualify for, how many dependents they have, and whether they’re married to a veteran who also qualifies for pension benefits. Currently, the MAPR for veterans who have no dependents and qualify for the basic Veterans Pension program is $16,037, while the MAPR for veterans who have one dependent and qualify for this pension is $21,001. The benefit amount a veteran receives is still based on the difference between their MAPR and their household’s annual countable income.
Unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 5% of the applicant’s MAPR can be used to reduce their countable income and net worth. At first glance, an applicant may appear to have excessive income and assets, but if they’re very ill or require extensive care, these medical expenses can greatly reduce their net worth. Factoring in high health care costs allows veterans in need to qualify financially for benefits like the VA pension.
The VA will calculate (or recalculate) a claimant’s net worth when it:
- Receives a new pension claim
- Receives a secondary claim following a period of ineligibility for benefits
- Receives a request to establish a new dependent
- Finds information that an applicant’s net worth has changed (e.g., income tax reporting that’s required whenever anyone sells real estate, such as a house)
Keep in mind that the VA established a 36-month look-back period on Oct. 18, 2018. This means that applicants who dispose of assets for less than fair market value in an attempt to qualify for the VA pension may face a penalty period of ineligibility for up to five years. For more information on VA rule changes and financial eligibility requirements, read Needs-Based VA Benefits Get New Eligibility Rules.
The VA enforces certain functional requirements for recipients of this pension to ensure that veterans who are unable to work, whether due to disability or age, receive the financial assistance they deserve. An eligible applicant must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Be at least 65 years old
- Be permanently and totally disabled (non-service-connected)
- Live in a nursing home
- Receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
- Receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
How can veterans use VA pension funds?
Veterans pensions are paid out on a monthly basis. These funds are considered tax-free income and can be used however the recipient sees fit. For example, pension funds can help cover the costs of housing, food, medical expenses, clothing, bills, home modifications for aging in place, transportation, long-term care, etc.
How to apply for VA pension
Applying for the Veterans Pension program can be a long and complicated process. If you think you or a veteran you know may qualify for the VA pension, the first step is to locate discharge papers (also known as DD Form 214 or report of separation).
Many veterans have misplaced their discharge records, but there are a couple options for tracking them down. The first place to look is at the county courthouse where many veterans filed their discharge records upon returning home from active duty. If you still can’t find this document, you can submit an online request through the National Archives eVetRecs site or submit a request via mail or fax using the SF-180 form. Certain fees may apply for requesting replacement documents. Emergency requests can be made, but turnaround times may vary.
Those filing for the veterans pension will also need to complete and gather the following:
- VA Form 21P-527EZ (Application for Veterans Pension)
- Additional personal and household evidence including proof of income, net worth information, and all relevant medical records or where to find them (specifics are outlined in the beginning pages of the above form)
Where to find help applying for VA benefits
Including specific, comprehensive information in a VA application is crucial for timely processing and determination of benefits, but many families need help locating and compiling the necessary paperwork. Accredited veteran service organizations (VSOs) like regional offices of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) can provide this assistance free of charge.
Once an application is submitted, there’s a waiting period before a veteran will receive an approval or denial. The amount of time varies according to the backlog of claims the VA’s processing, but the average wait time is usually a few months. However, longer waits are to be expected if a veteran files an incomplete or incorrect application.