After his grandfather died more than a decade ago, Lamarr Couser and his family were caught by surprise when the funeral director asked whether the World War II veteran was covered by a life insurance policy from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Couser, who is himself a U.S. Navy veteran and former National Guardsman, wasn't aware of the VA life insurance, a $10,000 policy for disabled veterans who might otherwise be denied private coverage, nor had he yet applied for it. His grandfather didn't have it, either. "I was shocked," he says. "It must be one of the best-kept secrets there is."
Indeed. The insurance is just one of several substantial benefits for many veterans and their families--from insurance to caregiving--that you may never have heard of. Consider Aid and Attendance, a tax-free benefit that helps cover an eligible veteran's costs for caregivers, nursing homes or assisted living--in some cases, to the tune of nearly $2,000 a month.
Many vets may also be unaware that the VA recently made it easier for veterans to get hearing aids, says Louis Celli, director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation for the American Legion. No longer does a vet need a physician's referral to get an appointment with a hearing specialist. He or she can simply schedule an appointment. VA insurance covers the cost; Medicare typically doesn't.
And in March, the VA said it will recognize eight diseases linked to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and cover claims for veterans suffering from those ailments who served there at least 30 days between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.
"There's a whole framework of resources out there," says Joseph Montanaro, a financial planner with USAA's military affairs advocacy group. Don't assume you're not eligible, he says. And recognize that spouses and dependents may qualify, too.
Montanaro's family learned that lesson when his father died of a service-related lung disease. They were surprised to discover their stepmother qualified for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a monthly tax-free payment for surviving spouses and dependents that can total more than $1,200, Montanaro says.
It's not just career military vets who can qualify for benefits. In general, veterans who served before 1980 need only have 90 days or more of active duty and a discharge other than dishonorable to qualify for many benefits. Veterans who served after 1980 must have served 24 continuous months of active duty or the full period for which they were called to active duty.
Ignore the common myth that you have to be disabled to use VA health care. You can check your eligibility at www.vets.gov/healthcare/eligibity. Co-pays may be required, depending on income and other factors.
Seek help from veterans' groups such as the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Through those organizations' websites, you can find a veteran service officer in your area who can point you toward benefits you might be eligible for, help you apply and assist in appeals. Their services are free.
As a first step, be sure to fill out an intent to file form covering the specific benefit you seek, says Kaylin Gilkey, community engagement manager for VeteranAid.org, an advocacy group. It may take months for your claim to be approved, but your benefits will be retroactive to the date you filed the form. That could mean thousands of dollars in reimbursements, she says. If a veteran dies while a claim is outstanding, it can be pursued by a surviving spouse or dependents, says Michael Figlioli, deputy director of the VFW National Veterans Service.
Wide Range of Benefits Available
Spouses and dependents of a permanently and totally disabled vet can qualify for health insurance through the VA's Civilian Health and Medical Program, or CHAMPVA. "It can be a huge savings, for you and your family," says Chad Moos, the DAV's deputy national service director. "But some veterans have gone years and years without even realizing their dependents are eligible." There are no premiums for CHAMPVA health and prescription coverage. Those on CHAMPVA can also sign up for Medicare Part D, which does have premium costs; Medicare is always the primary payer.
For veterans who need more help at home, there's a "hidden benefit" known as the Veteran-Directed Care Program, says Adrian Atizado, DAV's deputy national legislative director. It allows certain disabled veterans to hire family and friends to help with daily living tasks, such as doing the laundry or helping with breakfast. The VA provides you or your financial counselor as much as $2,000 a month, on average, to pay caregivers and aides you choose. The program is available through VA Medical Centers in at least 35 states.
Vietnam War vets who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the war, are eligible for a range of compensation and health care benefits. To qualify, you need to prove that you had "boots on the ground" in Vietnam, even briefly, between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975. You also need to show that you have a current diagnosis of one of the disabilities recognized by the VA as linked to the exposure, such as diabetes mellitus Type 2 or ischemic heart disease. Vets exposed to Agent Orange aboard ships, on aircraft and in other locations can also qualify.
If you meet the requirements for Agent Orange-related benefits, you may obtain disability compensation benefits and access to other health services more quickly, says Kelsey Yoon, director of veterans benefits for the VVA. And children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange who were born with spina bifida and certain other birth defects may also qualify for benefits, including compensation, health care and vocational training. "Older vets especially worry about who is going to take care of their kids when they're gone," Yoon says. "This is one of the most unknown benefits."
For long-term care, the Aid and Attendance benefit is aimed at helping older veterans and their spouses when they can no longer handle daily living tasks, such as dressing and showering, on their own, says Veteran-Aid's Gilkey. To qualify, you usually need to be paying for some kind of care, have roughly $80,000 or less in assets (excluding one home and one vehicle) and have served at least one day during wartime while on active duty. The $80,000 figure is a rough estimate, Veteran-Aid notes, and you can sometimes qualify above that limit. A single veteran can receive as much as $1,794 a month; a surviving spouse, $1,153; and two married veterans as much as $2,846. "It's been around a long time, but it's still so little-known," Gilkey says.
Vets who have mobility problems can apply for grants available to modify a car or home. There are also state VA benefits, from exemptions for local property taxes to free fishing and hunting licenses. For details, see the State Veteran's Benefits map at Military.com, a benefits information site.
After a veteran's death, survivors may qualify for benefits such as the monthly benefit payment that Montanaro's stepmother received. You could be eligible if the veteran died in the line of duty or from a service-related cause, says Kevin Friel, assistant director of the VA's pension and fiduciary service.
The VA can help with some burial expenses, and it provides a free headstone or marker and burial flag.
The VA just created a program that allows veterans to apply for burial benefits in advance, so veterans and their families can plan ahead. Go to www.cem.va.gov/pre-need to learn more.
Content in this material is for general information only.
This article was prepared by The Kiplinger Washington Editors.
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