Archive for April, 2017


Attorney vs. Service Officer

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Common Misunderstandings Regarding Type of Representation – Attorney vs. Service Officer

Obtaining maximum allowed disability benefits is key to ensuring that veterans and their dependents get what they are entitled. Too often the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denies a claim, in part or in total, without adequately assisting with the development of the evidence, or deciding claims based on the existing law. After years of frustration dealing with the VA, some veterans may simply give up without understanding that there are qualified attorneys able to offer representation.

Below is a list of some of the most common misunderstandings:

Misunderstanding #1 – I Can’t Hire an Attorney Because I Already Have a Service Officer

When initially filing a claim, or seeking a higher rating, the majority of veterans are initially represented by national service officers from veterans service organizations, such as the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, or Veterans of Foreign Wars. Many veterans believe that if they have a service organization representative, they are not allowed to hire an attorney during an appeal, or to handle particular claim(s) while the service officer handles another claim(s).

There is no law that requires you to be represented on all claims by the same representative or organization. So, all veterans are allowed to be represented by an attorney and a service officer on different claims. There is also no law that says you must keep the same representative. So, you are allowed to switch from a service officer to an attorney. Some service organizations have a policy that unless they can represent a veteran on all of claims, they are not willing to represent a veteran at all. While this may be an organization’s own policy, there is no law that requires this to be done. Therefore, a veteran is allowed to have more than one representative, as long as they are for different claims.

The important factor for a veteran to keep in mind is that if he/she is dissatisfied with his/her current representative, whether it is a service officer or an attorney, a veteran may always switch representatives.

Misunderstanding #2 – I Can’t Afford to Have an Attorney Represent Me at the VA or the Court

Attorneys representing at the VA level, which includes the Regional Office and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, by and large work on a contingency basis. That means the attorney will not get paid for any representation unless the veteran gets awarded disability compensation, i.e., retroactive benefits. In other words, an attorney will not get paid unless the case is won and compensation is awarded to the veteran. The attorney will only get a percentage of the retroactive amount that VA awards.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is not part of the VA, and lawyers who represent veterans there do not require a veteran to pay any out-of-pocket fees. Generally, if the attorney is successful in prevailing at the Veteran’s Court, and a case is sent back to the VA to be redone, the attorney can ask for fees and expenses through a government program called the Equal Access to Justice Act (or EAJA). These funds do not come out of a veterans benefits.

Other rules require an attorney who is paid for representing a veteran at the VA to offset any fees owed by the EAJA fees paid for the same work at the Court.

Misunderstanding #3 -As Long as I Have a Veterans Benefits Attorney Represent Me, I Will Win My Case

With the passage of a law a number of years ago, which allowed veterans to hire and pay attorneys at an earlier stage in the claims process, more attorneys are advertising that they can handle veteran’s benefits issues. While there are attorneys who do advertise and practice veterans benefits law, not all who say they represent veterans actually provide the representation or fully understand the complexities of current VA laws and regulations, changes made to the law, or the details of the claims process system.

Anyone considering hiring a lawyer should take care to ask the attorney about their experience in veteran’s benefits law to make sure that they can explain how VA “thinks” and go over what steps are needed to have the best chance to win a case and have it addressed in a timely manner.

This article was also posted on the Maryland State Bar Association Bar Bulletin. Follow the link to read it.

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Receiving Benefits for Service at Camp Lejeune

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Generally, a veteran who has developed a condition needs a medical opinion stating that the condition resulted from service in order to receive service-connected benefits. However, a new regulation went into place on March 14, 2017 which allows veterans with service at Camp Lejeune during a specific period to receive service-connected benefits on a presumptive basis if they developed one of the recognized conditions. This regulation means that no medical opinion is required for certain conditions, so long as the veteran served at least 30-days at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.

Which conditions are recognized?

The VA may grant service-connected benefits without a medical opinion if a veteran with the required service develops one of the following conditions:

How do I file a claim under the new regulation?

You can file a claim for service-connected benefits (for one of the conditions listed above) by completing and submitting VA Form 21-526EZ. State the approximate dates served at Camp Lejeune and attach copies of medical records showing your diagnosis. If you have service records showing you were stationed at Camp Lejeune, it is helpful to include them. If not, simply let the VA know the approximate dates of service and ask them to request copies of your personnel/service records.

What if you develop one of the recognized conditions, but didn’t serve for a full 30-days?

There is still a possibility of being granted service-connected benefits. The veteran can file a claim and submit records showing a currently diagnosed condition; evidence of exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune; and a medical opinion from a doctor who concluded that the currently diagnosed condition developed because of the exposure at Camp Lejeune.

How do I file a claim if I was at Camp Lejeune for less than 30-days, but developed a recognized condition?

You will need to send in a completed VA Form 21-526EZ, and you’ll want to send in the evidence discussed above. Gather medical records showing your diagnosis, records showing that you were stationed at Camp Lejeune and/or exposed to contaminated water, and a medical opinion from a doctor who concluded that you developed your condition because of your in-service exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

Keep in mind that certain facts or details about your service may be helpful to highlight to the VA. For example, if you can show that you had a lot of exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune (say, you had to shower three times a day, or your job required you to be in or around the water all day), submit a statement explaining how much contact you had with the water. If your doctor believes the exposure you had was sufficient/high risk enough to cause you to develop your condition, make sure the doctor includes in the opinion a statement explaining  to the VA that you didn’t need to be there for 30-days to be at risk for developing your condition.

Though this regulation is highly favorable to veterans seeking service-connected benefits, veterans who do not fall within the new guidelines are still just as eligible for benefits as before. Whether you are thinking about filing a claim, or have received a denial from the VA, give us a call for a free consultation. We look forward to hearing from you.

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