When you get ready to retire or separate from military service, one of your most important outprocessing jobs is to file a VA claim for service-connected medical conditions; this is required for those who wish to make a claim for VA benefits based on service-connected or service-aggravated medical conditions.
Not all claims go as expected, and some applicants feel the need to hire a lawyer in order to be heard or taken seriously by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Others simply may not know what their legal options are after filing a claim and need to know more. And some want to contest the VA decision on their claims.
This need for outside help is recognized by the VA and to help veterans and those who are trying to assist, special accreditation is available for those who wish to represent vets in this capacity.
VA Accreditation For Organizations And Individuals
Do you know what a VA accredited attorney is? Do you know if you need one? Not all veterans need an attorney, and certainly not all need a VA accredited attorney.
But those who have specific needs to file, contest, or follow up on VA claims may require outside help in doing so; these are needs that can be addressed by a VA accredited agency known as a Veteran Service Organization (VSO), or by a VA-accredited individual such as an attorney.
VSOs are better known than VA accredited lawyers, but the services they provide can be the same (with some notable exceptions where attorneys are concerned).
Some veterans don’t need legal help as much as they need assistance simply navigating the complicated landscape of forms, medical records, application data, etc. But others DO need legal help with a potential or current VA claim or other issue. That’s where VA accredited attorneys play an important role.
For the purposes of this article, we limit our conversation to VA accredited lawyers; we’ll address how VSOs work in another article.
How The VA Defines Accreditation
The VA accreditation program was created to provide veterans and military family members the ability to apply for their VA claims and “receive appropriate representation on their VA benefits claims.”
VA accreditation is not an all-purpose stamp of approval on an individual; VA policy states it’s intended, “for the sole and limited purpose of preparing, presenting, and prosecuting claims before VA.”
How VA Accreditation Works
An individual or organization can apply to get VA training to help veterans navigate the VA benefits system. This training is designed to help VSOs, lawyers, and other individuals understand the VA compensation system and its associated rules and features. The training is specifically meant to train in the following critical areas:
- VA compensation
- Benefits education
- Vocational rehabilitation and employment
- VA home loans
- Life insurance
- Health care
- Burial benefits
This accreditation process is required for anyone who wishes to help a VA claimant in any of the following ways:
- Claim preparation
- Claim presentation
- Prosecution of a claim for VA benefits
The VA accredits individuals who wish to represent claimants in one of two capacities–as a lawyer, or a claims agent acting without the support of a larger VSO or other organization. The accreditation cannot be used to promote a business, and the certified individual must meet standards of conduct and continuing education.
VSOs that meet VA standards are not allowed to charge a fee for their services; individuals, however, ARE permitted to charge a fee but such charges cannot be excessive and there are established channels with the Department of Veterans Affairs to contest fees which seem too high. You can learn how to challenge a fee at the VA officials site.
Who Needs A VA Accredited Lawyer or Agent?
There are many reasons why you may wish to appoint an agent or lawyer to work on your VA claim as your representative. They include, but may not be limited to, the following:
VA benefits were denied. VA claims include an appeals process and you should never feel you simply have to take the initial decision for a final answer from the VA.
The VA benefit rating was too low. Did you get a rating lower than you feel is accurate or less than what you deserve? Appeals to a low rating are not the exception–you aren’t necessarily “fighting city hall” when appealing a VA claim decision, but you will need supporting evidence and other documentation your representative can help you with.
Individual Unemployability benefits were denied. VA may deny Individual Unemployability benefits to veterans that can’t work due to service-connected medical conditions. Such denials should be appealed if you believe or your representative feels you have enough supporting evidence to justify your claim.
Backpay may be owed. VA benefits may be awarded that include back pay dating to the effective date of the condition and/or rating. But common VA mistakes include inaccurate effective dates for such payments.
Fully Developed Claim needs. Those who wish to use the VA Fully Developed Claim system may wish to use a representative to help navigate this claims system with its deadlines, documentation requirements, and other needs.
Find A VA Accredited Lawyer Or Agent
You can search for local representatives in your area (including individuals and VSOs alike) using the VA eBenefits portal. You can also get information on locally accredited people via your nearest VA Regional Office, or look online at the VA directory.
Appointing A Lawyer Or Agent
Once you find a representative you want to work with, it’s not as easy as saying, “You’re hired!” VA rules state you must formally appoint an attorney or claim agent in writing (see below) or online via the eBenefits portal. Do not appoint an agent or representative without discussing your needs with them first; you may find some are overbooked and unable to accommodate new cases, depending on circumstances.
To appoint a representative by mail you must complete VA Form 21-22, Appointment of Veterans Service Organization as Claimant’s Representative. Mail it to:
Department Of Veterans Affairs
Claims Intake Center
Po Box 4444
Janesville, WI 53547-4444
What You Need To Know About VA Representatives
If you are seeking a lawyer or an agent to represent you and work on your VA claim, there are some important details you should know about what the agent can and cannot do for you.
Restrictions On Who Can Provide Services
A VA claims agent or lawyer cannot represent both a VA claimant AND the federal government. VA rules state clearly that no one who works as a federal employee can be accredited by the VA to assist with claims while still employed with the government. There are exceptions to this. VA rules state those, “currently serving in a Reserve component of the Armed Forces” are not considered federal employees, “as long as you are not on active duty or active duty for training.”
Restrictions On Fees For Services
A VA-accredited attorney or claims agent is permitted to charge fees only after “an agency of original jurisdiction” such as a VA office makes a decision on the claim in question, and a notice of disagreement has been filed. Other required steps in such cases include having a power of attorney and a fee agreement on file with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Restrictions On Who May Serve Veterans
Some may wonder if they need to bother with a VA-accredited representative if the veteran seeks advice and assistance but don’t need help with the actual filing of the claim. VA rules in these cases state clearly that VA accreditation is required for ANY aid “in the preparation, presentation, or prosecution of a VA benefit claim.”
Furthermore, VA policy is clear on advising on specific benefit claims, or, “directing the claimant on how to fill out the application, even if you never put pen to paper.” These activities are all considered to be VA claims preparation.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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