Be careful who helps you with Veterans Benefits

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has created a list of people and organizations that are allowed to help with VA benefits.

(Note:  The Department of Veterans Affairs used to be called the Veterans Administration or VA before it was elevated to a Presidential Cabinet level department of the U.S. government.  Many people, including me, still often call it the VA for short.)

The people and organizations are “accredited” by the VA to help with VA benefits.  A list of VA accredited people is available on the VA’s website.  (https://www.va.gov/ogc/apps/accreditation/)

Attorneys can be accredited.  The are called accredited attorneys.  People who are not attorneys can be accredited.  They are called accredited agents.  All people who get accredited must keep their training on VA benefits up to date to keep their accreditation.

In addition to the accredited attorneys and agents, a person can help someone apply for VA benefits once.  Most often, these one-time helpers are children of the applicants.

In addition to accreditation requirements, no one (accredited or not) is allowed to charge a fee to help someone apply for VA benefits.  Put another way, no one is supposed to accept money for help applying for VA benefits.  The applicant isn’t supposed to have to pay.  The applicant’s family isn’t supposed to have to pay.  The applicant’s nursing isn’t supposed to have to pay.  Plain and simple, it’s supposed to be free.

To be sure, certain people work for organizations that help veterans and their families apply for benefits, and, as employees, these people get paid.  The organizations, however, don’t get paid to help with the applications.  For example, in many states, certain state or local government employees are paid to help residents apply for benefits.  In Ohio, we have county Veterans Services Commissions.  These are government employees that receive a paycheck, but their pay does not depend on the number of people that they help.  Similarly, many veterans organizations, such as American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veterans, help with VA applications, but they do so at no charge to the applicant.  These organizations are supported by donations and fundraisers that are completely separate from the help with VA applications.

There are some non-profit organizations set up to help with VA applications for Pension (more often called Aid and Attendance.)  Such organizations can’t charge a fee.  Some of them, though, explain that they expect a “donation” in return for help with the application.  Is this “expected donation in return” a violation of the “no fee for application” rule?  I’m not sure.  Such a “non-profit” organization once offered to prepare my clients’ VA applications in exchange for a certain dollar amount donation per application.  That offer didn’t pass my personal “smell test.”

Now, please remember that the VA Pension benefit is not available to an applicant whose wealth is over a certain limit.  (The limit on wealth, comes from a complicated formula rather than a certain dollar figure, so I won’t go into detail on the wealth limit in this installment.)  Certain non-profit often speak to residents of assisted living facilities about the Pension benefit, offering free help with Pension applications.  Then, when a resident meets with the organization’s representative one-on-one, the resident is told that he/she has too much money to qualify.  The residents who have too much wealth are then referred to someone who can help them become “poor enough” to qualify for the Pension benefit.  According to the information I have received over the years, the referrals to help someone become poor enough to qualify are almost always to someone who offers to sell an annuity that the VA won’t count as “wealth” because the annuity has a long surrender period.

(Feb. 27, 2017 Ed. Note:  I received a comment in response to this post from someone with the Academy of VA Pension Planners explaining that VA doesn’t care about a surrender period for an annuity.  If the person can access the funds, the funds count as wealth in the eligibility determination.  I admit that I don’t know whether the comment that I received is true or if the position taken by the annuity salesperson that VA won’t count an annuity with a surrender charge is true.  BUT, I have witnessed an annuity salesperson claim that VA won’t count annuities with surrender charges.  My concerns expressed below about such annuities if the owner would need Medicaid are great enough for me to dislike such an approach no matter VA’s position on them.)

Now, there is nothing inside current VA rules that indicates that a long surrender period annuity violates VA policy.  If the person’s income and VA benefit cover his/her care costs for the rest of his/her life, then everything is fine.  If the person’s care costs exceed the income plus VA benefit, problems can arise.

If the person needs to go on Medicaid to get all of his/her care costs paid, then the money placed in the annuity is now considered for Medicaid eligibility.  (Medicaid doesn’t ignore annuities with a surrender charge the way that the VA ignores them.)  The annuity will probably have to be cashed in, and the surrender charge lost, before the person can get Medicaid coverage.  Depending on the age of the annuity, that surrender charge can be huge.

Many elder law attorneys help people who want to get VA benefits, and sometimes that help includes becoming “poor enough” to qualify for VA Pension (in the same way that elder law attorneys can help people become “poor enough” to qualify for Medicaid for long term care.)  None of the elder law attorneys that I know use the “bait and switch” tactic that these annuity salespeople use.  The elder law attorneys that I know do not get your attention with the “free” help with applications as a way to get your attention.

So, when considering VA benefits (especially VA Pension,) if you want help from someone who does many such applications, look for someone accredited and be wary of “free” help and of organizations that you’ve not heard of before that have official sounding names.

My thanks to Craig Hannus of Gateway Advisors in Mentor, Ohio for suggesting this topic.

My apologies for not posting last week.  I did not have time to prepare something that I considered satisfactory.

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