Among veterans it is a common belief that you need to prove service-connection to be eligible for VA disability benefits, but this is not always the case. There are some notable exceptions where you may be eligible for non-service-connected benefits. Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Service-Connected vs. Non-Service-connected Benefits?
To be eligible for VA disability benefits you need to show that your disabling condition is connected to your military service. This is called “direct service-connection.” You have this connection if an event that took place during your service caused the injury or illness you suffer from now.
There are three different types of direct service-connection--Aggravated Service-connection, Presumptive Service-connection, and Secondary Service-connection.
Aggravated Service-connection is established if you can show that an existing medical condition was aggravated or made worse after an event that occurred during your military service. You may need a doctor’s opinion to help show the connection to your service.
For veterans who have served at least 90 days in the military, there are medical conditions that, by law, are assumed to be service-connected. Presumptive Service-connection is available for POWs who acquired certain illnesses after being confined for more than 30 days, certain chronic health conditions such as infectious diseases acquired after serving in the Gulf War, and for certain cancers and other diseases due to exposure to hazardous chemicals like Agent Orange. You need medical evidence of the diagnosis and that the condition occurred within the presumed time period.
You’re eligible for disability benefits under a Secondary Service-connection if your illness or injury has caused another different or separate condition. For example, a second service-connection might be depression caused by an injury you sustained while in combat. You’ll need medical evidence and a doctor’s opinion that prove this.
But what about non-service disabilities when none of a veteran’s disabling impairments are related to their military service? These benefits exist and are known as a non-service-connected pension or simply known as a veteran’s pension. If you meet all of the requirements, you could qualify for non-service-connected disability payments.
What Are the Requirements for a Non-Service-connected Pension?
You may qualify for a non-service-connected pension if you meet these requirements:
- You are 65 years or older, or if under 65, are permanently and totally disabled and your disabling conditions must not be the result of willful misconduct.
- You served during wartime.
- You have limited or no income.
- You cannot have served under dishonorable conditions.
Additionally, there is a length of service requirement which depends on the date you entered active duty. This requirement can get complicated. If you started on active duty before September 8, 1980, you must have completed at least 90 days of active duty with at least 1 day during a wartime period. If you entered active duty after September 7, 1980, you must have served at least 24 months with at least 1 day during a wartime period. But, if your total length of service is under 24 months, you need to have completed your entire tour of active duty.
What Exactly Does “Served During Wartime” Mean?
The term “served during wartime” can be confusing. It does not mean that you actually served in a war zone. This means to qualify for a non-service-connected pension you did not have to actually have gone to war; you only have to prove that you served during a period of war. In 38 C.F.R. §3.2, the VA gives the specific beginning and ending dates of each qualifying wartime period going all the way back to the Indian Wars of the 1800s. Here are the qualifying dates for more recent conflicts:
- World War II: December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946
- Korean conflict: June 27, 1950, to January 31, 1955
- Vietnam War era: February 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975 (for Veterans who served in Vietnam) and August 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975 (for Veterans who served outside of Vietnam)
- Gulf War: August 2, 1990, through a future date to be set
What Are the Standards for Meeting the Limited or No Income Requirement?
The VA will evaluate your assets and income to determine if you qualify for the veterans pension. Generally, here is what the VA will look at:
- How much income you earn.
- How much income your dependents (e.g. spouse and children) earn.
- Any Social Security benefits you may be collecting.
- What income you derive from investments.
- Any pension or retirement benefits you may be collecting.
To meet the assets eligibility requirements for a non-service-connected pension, you and your spouse cannot have assets that are worth more than $138,489 (2022 limit). These assets are excluded from this limit:
- Your home and up to 2 acres of land surrounding your home
- Any vehicles that are necessary for household use
- Basic household necessities, such as furniture, utensils, etc.
If you qualify for a non-service-connected pension the VA will base your payment amount on the difference between your countable income and a limit that Congress sets (called the Maximum Annual Pension Rate or MAPR). The MAPR is set by Congress and is adjusted each year based on cost-of-living increases. It takes into account:
- How many dependents you have
- Whether you’re married to a veteran who qualifies for the pension
- Whether you’re eligible for Housebound or Aid and Attendance benefits
Because the VA excludes some income from its calculations like certain educational expenses, unreimbursed medical expenses, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, etc. the best course of action is to report all your assets and sources of income when you file. The VA will determine if you qualify for the veterans pension.
Should You File for a Non-service-connected Pension?
If, after reviewing the requirements, you think you may qualify for a non-service-connected pension; our advice is to apply for it. Even if you are awarded a pension based on a non-service-connected impairment, you can establish a service-connection later and be awarded disability benefits. You will receive whichever of the two benefits pays the most, not both.
VA Disability Attorneys in Your Corner
Winning the benefits for a non-service-connected pension can be tricky, but expert help is readily available. Call Cuddigan Law at 402.933.5405 or email us to get a free evaluation of your case and advice for your specific situation. We are accredited VA disability attorneys who have been supporting veterans for years. If you hire us to fight for your rights, we only get paid if you win your case.