By Tracey Ingle
I try to remember to thank all veterans for their service to our country. I know the Veterans Administration exists for this same purpose. Unfortunately, under the rules of veterans benefits programs, not all veterans are created equal — eligibility is everything. There are compensation benefits for veterans who are disabled because of their service.
There are pension benefits for veterans who are now disabled, but not because of their service. The former compensate veterans for their personal, physical sacrifice. The latter are a form of social support for low-income veterans, or veterans facing substantial medical expenses. Regardless of the benefit sought, a veteran must meet certain service requirements.
General service eligibility requirements are the “black and white” tests. A veteran either satisfies the requirements or not. If he does, then we can see if he also meets other eligibility requirements. If he doesn’t, there will be no benefits and nothing the veteran can do about it.
As an elder law attorney, I focus on the non-service connected disability pension benefits. These are the funds earmarked for low-income veterans, and veterans facing substantial un-reimbursed medical expenses, such as home health care, adult day care or assisted living. But for every benefit I’ve come across, the Veterans Administration (VA) looks first to see how the veteran was discharged. A dishonorable discharge will eliminate a veteran from consideration in almost every instance. The first requirement is an “other than dishonorable discharge.”
Service in any branch of service is sufficient to qualify. This includes the big four: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. It also includes the Coast Guard, some Merchant Marines, and some other commissioned officers.
National Guard and Reserve service is more problematic. The VA makes clear that it will only consider active duty service. It also makes clear it will not consider active duty for “training purposes.” So, for National Guardsmen or Reservists, their one weekend a month and two weeks a year of duty do not count. Those are training periods. A Guardsman or Reservist must be called to active duty for service beyond training.
There are also benefits that require service during wartime. For most, service in combat is not necessary. The VA recognizes periods of war for the Mexican Border, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War.
Next comes the length of time in service. Some benefits have no minimum requirement. Some require at least 90 days of service, one of which was during a period of wartime. But note, these periods might be different depending upon when the veteran served. For non-service connected disability pensions, if the veteran entered active duty after Sept. 8, 1980 there is a two year requirement.
Finally, there are different requirements for different benefits. I got into a discussion the other day with a veteran about qualifying for Aid and Attendance and his wartime service requirement. He was quite positive that Massachusetts veterans needed only 180 days of service, but that there was no need for any wartime service. Sadly,
I had to explain to him that his years of peace-time service (far more than 180 days) would qualify him for Massachusetts Veterans benefits, but would do nothing to qualify him for the federal VA Aid and Attendance benefit he and his wife so desperately needed.
Tracey Ingle is the Probate Puzzle Person and Principal of Ingle Law. She can be reached at 508-281-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org or go to http://www.inglelaw.com/. Archives can be read at fiftyplusadvocate.com.