If you have been denied VA disability you have to pick the best advocate.
Which means you have to be presented with the options and the knowledge to choose wisely.
This is the second in a three-part series on picking the right advocate to represent you in Veterans claims.
In the last article, we covered the five choices you have for who to work with if you’ve been denied VA Disability.
Briefly, you can choose to…
Go it alone; or
Use a friend; or
Obtain a Veterans Service Officer; or
Retain a VA Accredited Claims Agent; or
or retain a VA Accredited Attorney
The direction you choose to go is a personal choice that you are going to have to make. It is also something you should explore if you have the luxury of taking a couple of weeks to make a good choice. Understandably, not has the time to look at all their options.
Continuing the Discussion
In this article, we want to provide you with more background on why you might choose to go one way over another in picking a VA disability representative. And we will begin to address why if you chose to work with an attorney, you would want to choose an attorney that is familiar and that actively practices both VA AND Social Security Disability law.
The assumption up front is that you’re not going to be going it alone or working with a close, but non-accredited, friend. Which leaves, VSO, Claims Agent, or Attorney as your options.
First and to be blunt, not all advocates are equally effective. Some are excellent, others were excellent until their caseload became too high. Some are swamped and under-resourced, others are frankly burnt out on the moving target of VA service claims. Understanding this, let’s look at the benefits and drawbacks of our choices.
Veterans Service Officers (VSO’s):
Many VSO’s fall into the under-resourced category. There are thousands of VSO’s, but only a few of them do it as a full-time, paid, gig. Most are volunteers. A majority of them, even though volunteers, spend a great deal of time educating themselves on the processes and changing laws associated with VA disability. By and large, the good outnumber the bad. VSO’s are truly those committed to supporting Veterans in our communities.
However, Achilles heel for many volunteer VSO’s is the lack of an accountable paper-trail. This falls back on resources. It takes a deliberate effort and dedicated staff to maintain hundreds of different forms, doctor statements, historical records, service records, contact records and everything else that is or even could become material to a claim. VSO’s are excellent for getting a claim filed and introducing you to various other benefits within your community. But unless you’re working with a paid VSO, it is “more likely than not,” that a complex claim or appeal is going to be a challenge for the VSO.
VA Accredited Claims Agents
VA Accredited Claims agents have to pass an in-depth knowledge and procedures based test to initially receive their accreditation. In addition to this, they must have personal references and work through a process just as mysterious, cumbersome, and at times opaque as any disability claim.
I work closely with an Accredited Claims Agent that had to call 10 different people before he could get ahold of the Assistant General Counsel in charge of pushing his Accreditation request through. It was only after using highly advanced phone tree skills and dogmatic persistence that the agent was able to schedule his accreditation test and move forward to become accredited. Many Agents have spent years working within the systems of the VA and are intimately familiar with its failures.
Claims Agents come in three basic varieties..
1) Claims Agents that work for a law firm that represents Veterans in disability or some other form of law. In this case they fill-in as a paralegal-like specialist. And in some firms, they do the advocating and argue claims in front of the Board of Veterans Appeals judges.
2) Claims Agents that work for themselves. These agents represent Veterans on their own. Independent of any law firm or Veterans Service Organization.
3) Claims Agents that work for financial planners. There are some benefits that only allow for accredited agents or attorneys to give advice. Some financial planners rely upon Claims Agents to advise and coordinate wealth planning with certain Veterans disability benefits, such as Aid and Attendance.
Because of a Claims Agent’s advanced VA knowledge, they are often great to seek for support on simple or medium complexity claims, and for advice on situations that bleed over into other areas of Veterans benefits. However, most agents will not provide you support on initial claims as there is no way for them to get paid to do so. The VA only allows for compensation/fee collection in appeals claims that are successfully appealed (this is true for attorneys as well).
Many Claims Agents have a more difficult time working on medium to more complex VA disability claims unless they are paired with a law firm. It comes down to procedural support. There are only so many forms, so many briefs, so much research, so many classes, and so many phone calls one person can handle. Add in running the business and going several years on a typical claim before a payoff, and you can see why there are so few independent Agents.
VA Accredited Attorneys
Want to know a secret? To obtain VA Accreditation as an attorney is very easy. All you need to do is file a form. Why am I saying this? Because there are MANY attorneys that are accredited, but only a few that actually do represent Veterans. Of those few, fewer still have the breadth of knowledge to provide a value-added vs Claims Agents or VSO’s. Heck, VSO’s are free!
So why would a Veteran want to use an attorney vs a FREE VSO?
First, consider attorneys for VA disability appeals only. It does a Veteran no good to seek an attorney to help them for initial claims. In fact, one could easily point out there can be a conflict of interest for attorneys filing initial claims for Veterans. If the Veterans claim is denied, and they use the attorney to appeal, the attorney can then collect a fee. Where if the attorney developed the initial claim to the point of success in the first place, they would not be able to collect a fee at all. The incentive is 100% at the appeals level for attorneys. Attorneys that are eager to lock up your power of attorney at the initial claims level should raise your eyebrows and suspicions.
The real strength of working with a law firm at the appeals level comes from process control. Disability law, in general, is very competitive, these competitive forces have made it to where only the most efficient succeed in this industry. Firms that succeed have a rock-solid process, don’t lose paperwork, communicate well with clients, and differentiate themselves through excellence. If you have an appeal, especially something where you have >30% in one or more areas being appealed, this is when a good law firm starts to make sense. They are set up from the ground up to handle evidence gathering and claim development. VSO’s and independent claims agents just don’t have the same process control for more complex, longer-term claims.
We alluded to this in the last paragraph; if you’re going to work with an attorney for a VA Service Connected Disability claim appeal, you would be well served to seek one that has experience in disability law. Especially one that knows Social Security Disability.
Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you in figuring out who to work with for VA disability.
VSO – Best for Initial Claims and connections to benefits in general
Claims Agent – Best for Simple to Medium complexity Appeals. If part of a law firm can handle complex cases.
Attorney – Best for all levels of appeals especially those >30% and/or of multiple disability claims. Also best for cases that span multiple areas of law.