What is an Attorney’s Role in the VA Claims Process?
Most claimants for VA Disability Compensation will never need an Attorney. In fact, by law, Attorneys are barred from even taking a fee for representing claimants before the VA until the Veteran appeals a decision against her.
The VA is, of course, a large federal agency with millions of active claims. By the VA’s count, there are nearly 4 million Veterans with service connected conditions (2014 numbers). The agency must try to quickly and fairly adjudicate this overwhelming number of claims with limited resources. For this reason, VA adjudicators rely on a checklist system for determining outcomes; in other words, if they cannot easily put a check in the box for the elements of each claim, they will deny it. However, the law relating to VA claims can be very complex and does not lend itself to the checklist method in every case.
For example, in the course of a normal claim, the Veteran’s service medical records will be ordered and examined. The VA will typically schedule a medical examination and from that will determine whether a diagnosable condition exists and whether it is linked to an event found in the service medical record. If the answers to these questions are easily answered in the affirmative, a rating specialist will determine the degree of impairment based on the medical examination and this will result in service connection at a specific rate of disability in 10 percent increments.
At this point, if the Veteran does not disagree with this outcome, there is no need for an Attorney. However, oftentimes whether a Veteran suffers from a current diagnosable condition is not cut-and-dried, or whether the current condition is related to something that occurred during service may not be clear. If the process described above results in a denial of service connection, or a lower impairment rating or later effective date than the Veteran believes she is entitled to; then the Veteran may need an attorney to advocate on her behalf based on the complexity of the facts and law.
What if the Veteran cannot afford an Attorney? Typically, attorneys representing Veterans appealing their claims are paid on a contingency basis, much like personal injury attorneys. In other words, if the Veteran is successful on appeal, the attorney is paid based on a percentage of back pay owed (usually 20%). If the Veteran’s appeal is denied, the Veteran owes no attorney’s fees.
Published with permission and written by Dan Burton as a guest blogger of Greening Law, P.C. To get in touch with Dan Burton for Veteran, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.