Benefits available through the Veterans Administration are the most commonly overlooked benefits available to seniors. Many times, veterans and their spouses make incorrect assumptions related to their entitlement to VA benefits. These individuals will assume that since they did not retire from the military they are not entitled to any benefits from the VA, or they will assume that since they were not injured during their service they are not entitled to any benefits from the VA. While there are in fact benefits available to retired veterans and veterans with service connected disabilities, these are not the only benefits available.
What It Takes To Qualify
The single most commonly overlooked VA benefit is called the “Aid and Attendance” benefit. Of the people who have heard of this benefit, many have been incorrectly told that they do not qualify. The reality is, this benefit is available to many veterans and their spouses and can prove to be a lifesaver when times get tough.
In order to qualify for the VA Aid and Attendance benefit, the veteran must have served at least ninety (90) days of active duty. Of those ninety days, at least one of the days must have been during a designated period of war. This does not mean that the veteran had to have served in combat. It is merely a requirement that the veteran’s service occur during one of the periods of time where the United States had declared war. Official periods of war include: the Mexican Border, May 9, 1916, to April 5, 1917; World War I, April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918 (April 1, 1920, if served in Russia); World War II, December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946; Korean Conflict, June 27, 1950, to January 31, 1955; Vietnam War, August 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975 (February 28, 1961, if served in Vietnam); and the Persian Gulf War, August 2, 1990 to an as yet unknown date.
In addition to the Veterans active duty service, he or she must have been discharged from the military in some way other than dishonorably. This could include an honorable discharge, an other-than-honorable discharge, a general discharge or a medical discharge. Even if a veteran was dishonorably discharged, it may still be possible to petition VA to have the dishonorable discharge changed to one of the other forms of discharge.
What About A Spouse?
A veteran who meets the above noted requirements is considered a wartime veteran. So what about the spouse of a wartime veteran? The surviving spouse of a wartime veterans is also entitled to the Aid and Attendance benefit, if he or she was married to the veteran for at least one year, married to the veteran at the time of the veteran’s death and has not since remarried. There is no requirement that the spouse be married to the veteran during the veteran’s time of service. Additionally, if the widow of a veteran does remarry and his or her new spouse is also a veteran who meets the eligibility requirements, then the spouse can qualify under that second marriage instead.
The reason the VA benefit is termed the Aid and Attendance benefit, is because it is for veterans or their surviving spouses who need assistance with their normal activities of daily living. In order to meet this requirement, the applicant must be over sixty-five (65) years of age or blind or disabled and need someone else’s help with their activities of daily living. Such assistance might include help with feeding, bathing, getting dressed, meal preparation, financial management and similar items.
Income & Net Worth Requirements
Finally, in order to qualify for this benefit, the applicants must have what the VA considers to be low monthly income and a normal net worth. However, a person should not assume that they do not meet these requirements without having a full understanding of what these terms mean. For example, when the VA uses the term “low monthly income,” they are referring to Income for VA Purposes (IVAP). IVAP is defined as the total household income minus any unreimbursed medical expenses. Such unreimbursed medical expenses might include insurance premiums, copays, prescription drugs and the cost of in home care or assisted living. For example, a veteran with $4,000.00 in monthly income might not consider himself to have low monthly income. But if this veteran lives in an assisted living facility that charges $3,500.00 a month in rent, then the veteran’s Income for VA Purposes is only $500.00 per month. That would meet the definition of low monthly income.
The VA also requires an applicant to have a normal net worth. Unlike other federal programs, the VA does not define normal net worth. Instead, the VA will look at a person’s net worth in relation to how much they are spending and their life expectancy. Therefore, a younger veteran might be entitled to keep more assets than an older veteran. Typically, the VA does not count the value of a home in its determination of net worth. With a thorough understanding of the rules and the guidance of someone experienced with dealing with the VA, many people can meet this section of the eligibility test. It should be noted that as of the writing of this article, the VA does not impose a penalty for transfers of assets. However, there have been several attempts to pass legislation in Congress that if passed will impose a transfer of assets penalty similar to Medicaid. This makes it even more important to plan ahead if you might benefit from the VA Aid and Attendance program at some point in the future.
How Much You Could Get
So, why is all of this discussion about the Aid and Attendance benefit so important? For those who qualify, the VA will send money that the person can use to help pay for their care. For 2015, a surviving spouse of a veteran could receive a maximum benefit of approximately $1,149.00 per month, a single veteran could receive a maximum benefit of approximately $1,789.00 per month and a veteran with a dependent spouse could receive a maximum benefit of approximately $2,120.00 per month.
Let’s take Sally as an example. Sally is the surviving spouse of a veteran who served during the Korean conflict. She is seventy-nine years old and her Social Security and retirement income totals $2,000.00 per month. Sally’s health has declined and although she still lives at home, it is becoming more and more difficult for her to take care of herself. Sally looked at one of the local assisted living facilities and really liked what she saw. However, when she was told that the monthly cost would be $2,500.00, she assumed that she could not afford that much expense and continued to live at home in an unsafe environment. But after applying for the Aid and Attendance benefit through the VA, Sally was able to receive the maximum VA benefit of $1,149.00 per month. This increased her income to $3,100.00 dollars and she can now afford to live in the assisted living facility that she thought she could not afford.
Planning related to obtaining VA benefits is very complicated. Not only must you meet VA’s eligibility rules exactly, this type of planning is only a small part of the type of planning that is necessary for a person to protect themselves, their life savings, and their dignity. Many elder law attorneys are also accredited VA attorneys. A lawyer must be accredited by the Veterans Administration in order to assist you with VA planning. In addition to elder law attorneys, there are Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) that can also provide assistance with VA benefits.
Also, it should be noted that as of the time of this writing, the VA has proposed significant changes to the Aid and Attendance program. These changes, if passed, will make pre-planning related to VA benefits even more important.
For those who qualify, the VA Aid and Attendance benefit can be the difference between life and death. Anyone interested should seek advice, even if they do not need the benefit yet. Thank you to all the veterans and their family who have given so much for this country.
John K. Ross IV is an Elder Law attorney and senior partner of Ross & Shoalmire, LLP Elder Law Firm. John holds a degree in Accounting from Texas State University and a Juris Doctorate from Texas Tech School of Law. John devotes his entire practice to assisting individuals with their estate planning and Elder Law needs. He is licensed to practice in Texas, Arkansas, and before the Unites States Tax Court. John is a U.S. Marine Corp veteran and is also an accredited Veterans Affairs attorney, a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, a member of the Judge Advocate for the American Legion and a member of the board of directors for the Alzheimer’s Alliance. John is a frequent speaker on both a local and national level, and has been quoted by such national publications as the Wall Street Journal on aging issues. John is the co-host of the Aging Insight radio program Saturdays from Noon to 1:00p.m on 98.5 FM Texarkana and the Aging Insight television program on KLFI-TV Channel 10 Texarkana.