What is the VA Pension Benefit?
This is a monthly VA benefit for low-income wartime veterans. There are two main types of VA pension benefits: (1) basic pension, and (2) special monthly pension.
We will give you:
- a broad overview of pension benefit programs,
- current eligibility requirements,
- pension rates, and
- information about how to apply.
NOTE: The VA has proposed a new rule that could change who can qualify for pension benefits.Read more about these changes below.
The VA runs three types of basic pension programs:
- Section 306 pension;
- Old-law pension; and
- Improved pension.
Each program has slightly different rules about who qualifies for benefits. Anyone applying now would be applying for the third type, the “improved pension” program. So that is the one we will talk about here.
Who can get a VA pension?
To qualify, you must meet 3 basic eligibility tests:
To pass this test, you must:
- have a discharge status that is not dishonorable; and
- meet the minimum service test:
- If you entered active duty before 9/8/80, you must have served 90 days of active duty with at least 1 such day during a period of war.
- If you entered active duty on or after 9/8/80, you must:
- have served either:
- 24 months of continuous active duty; or
- the full period for which you were called or ordered to active duty; AND
- have active service that includes one of the following:
- 90 or more days during one or more periods of war;
- 90 or more consecutive days with at least 1 such day during a period of war; or
- 1 or more days of wartime service that led to discharge for a service-connected disability.
- have served either:
The following are “periods of war” for pension eligibility purposes:
|War||Start Date||End Date||Additional Criteria|
|Mexican Border War||May 9, 1916||Apr 5, 1917||Veteran must have served in Mexico or its surrounding borders or waters|
|World War I||April 6, 1917||Nov 11, 1918|
|World War I||Apr 6, 1917||Apr 1, 1920||Veteran must have served in Russia|
|World War I||Nov 12, 1918||Jul 1, 1921||Veteran must have any active service from Apr 6, 1917 through Nov 11, 1918|
|World War II||Dec 7, 1941||Dec 31, 1946|
|World War II||Jan 1, 1947||Jul 25, 1947||Veteran must have continuous service on or before Dec 31, 1946|
|Korean Conflict||Jun 27, 1950||Jan 31, 1955|
|Vietnam Era||Aug 5, 1964||May 7, 1975|
|Vietnam Era||Feb 28, 1961||May 7, 1975||Veteran must have served in the Republic of Vietnam|
|Persian Gulf War||Aug 2, 1990||Present|
You can qualify for a pension only if you have limited income and property. The VA will also look at how much income you need to provide for your basic needs.
The VA will consider your and your spouse’s and dependent children’s income. The VA defines “dependent child” as an unmarried biological, adopted or step child who is:
- under 18-years-old,
- between 18- and 22-years-old and pursuing an education, or
- permanently incapable of self-support (and became disabled before age 18).
Sometimes the VA will decide that counting a dependent child’s income would cause a “hardship.” In that case, the VA won’t count the child’s income. (This can be complicated. If you think this “hardship” rule should apply to you, try to find a veterans’ advocate or a lawyer to help you. Read more about such help below.)
“Income” includes payments of any kind that you get from any source. That means you need to report all of your income. The law does allow the VA to not count some types of income. But the VA will sort this out once it sees all of your income from all sources.
The VA will also deduct (not count) income you use to pay for:
- Household medical expenses above a certain amount per month;
- Expenses from last illness and burial for your spouse or child; and
- Educational expenses (such as tuition, fees, books and necessary school materials).
The VA will look at any property that you could sell to support yourself. For example, they might look at land, pleasure boats, heavy equipment not used to produce income, food or firewood, etc.
The VA will not count against you:
- your home
- the land on which your home sits (up to a “reasonable” size); or
- your personal property (vehicles, clothing, etc.) that is considered basic and reasonable.
If your life expectancy is limited, the VA may apply a stricter property test.
If the VA denies your benefits eligibility based on your assets, you should seek legal assistance.
- Expected depletion rate
The VA will consider how quickly your assets (income and property) are likely to be used up considering your needs (including medical expenses).
The VA will usually (but not always) find that there is sufficient “need” for basic pension if the veteran’s net worth (income and property) is less than $80,000. Again, the older you are, the more VA expects you to “spend down” your assets before qualifying.
You must be:
- at least 65 years of age, or
- totally and permanently disabled.
Your disability need not be service related. It can be the result of anything except your own “willful misconduct.”
You are treated as totally and permanently disabled if you are:
- suffering from a condition that the VA considers to be 100% disabling and permanent;
- a patient in a nursing home for long-term care because of disability;
- determined to be disabled by the Social Security Administration; or
- unemployable as a result of a disability that will continue for the rest of your life.
You cannot be “substantially and gainfully” employed. You may still qualify if you are “marginally employed.” The VA defines this as earning half (or less) than the usual rate of pay.
SPECIAL MONTHLY PENSION
The VA offers two types of special monthly pension (“SMP”), as an add-on to basic pension:
- housebound benefits; and
- aid & attendance.
To qualify for housebound benefits, you have to be “permanently and totally disabled,” as defined above. You must also:
- be permanently confined to your home; or
- suffer from an additional disability that the VA rates as at least 60% disabling.
NOTE: Be aware that VA Compensation-related housebound benefits are different – and have different rules – than these VA Pension-related housebound benefits.
Aid & Attendance
To qualify for Aid & Attendance benefits, you must need the regular help of another person to perform the functions of everyday living. (This need can be temporary; it does not have to be a permanent need.) If you are in a nursing home because of your disability, the VA will assume that you qualify for this benefit.
When you qualify for these “SMP” benefits, you also get:
- VA hospital and outpatient medical care, and
- cost-free medication ordered by VA doctors.
How much can I get?
Your annual “countable” income must be less than the VA’s “maximum annual pension rate” (“MAPR”). Remember that the VA may make certain deductions to arrive at your “countable income (see above). The VA increases the rate around December each year. As of December 2014, the current MAPRs are:
|Pension Type||Veteran's Status (family situation & caretaking needs)||MAPR|
|Improved||without dependents (spouse or child)||$13,166|
|Improved||with 1 dependent||$17,241|
|Improved||2 veterans married to each other||$17,241|
|SMP||without dependents; housebound benefits||$16,089|
|SMP||with 1 dependent; housebound benefits||$20,166|
|SMP||without dependents; aid & attendance||$21,962|
|SMP||with 1 dependent; aid & attendance||$26,036|
|SMP||2 veterans married to each other; 1 housebound benefits||$20,166|
|SMP||2 veterans married to each other; both housebound benefits||$23,087|
|SMP||2 veterans married to each other; 1 aid & attendance||$26,036|
|SMP||2 veterans married to each other; 1 aid & attendance and 1 housebound benefits||$28,953|
|SMP||2 veterans married to each other; both aid & attendance||$34,837|
If you have more than one dependent, you should add $2,198 for each additional dependent child. For example, if you are eligible for Improved Pension and Aid & Attendance and you have one spouse and three children (a total of four dependents), you would have an MAPR of $32,082 ($25,488 + ($2,198 x 3)).
Your benefit is the difference between the MAPR and your “countable” income. So, if you qualify for an Improved Pension and you have one dependent, the MAPR is $16,851. If your countable household income is $10,000, you would qualify for $6,851. This is paid monthly: $6851 ÷ 12 = $571 monthly benefit.
“Early War Veterans” (veterans of the Mexican Border Period or World War I) can add $2,923.
How do I apply?
If you want to apply online, you can do so by:
- creating an account on the eBenefits website at: www.ebenfits.va.gov;
- selecting “Apply for Benefits”; and
- selecting “Apply for Veterans Benefits via VONAPP.”
If you apply online, you may need to scan and upload supporting documents to your application. You can track the status of claims on the eBenefits website.
The application you will complete online is VA Form 21-526, which will ask for:
- Your personal and contact information;
- Your service information (including a copy of your DD214 or other separation papers for all periods of active duty service);
- Your employment history;
- Information about your spouse and dependents (including certified copies of marriage and birth certificates);
- Information about your disabilities and any services you receive relating to your disabilities;
- Information about your income and property; and
- Information about any medical expenses that you paid out-of-pocket.
If you want to apply by paper, you can do so by completing VA Form 21P-527EZ, which will request much of the same information (see above) but will focus on:
- Information about your income and property;
- Records of any medical treatment you got from private doctors; and
- The name of any federal center where you have gotten medical care.
If needed, you will also have to complete some additional forms and submit them with the VA Form 21P-527EZ:
- VA Form 21-2680 if you are claiming aid & attendance and/or housebound benefits SMP;
- VA From 21-0779 if you are claiming SMP based on nursing home attendance;
- VA Form 21-686c if you have dependents.
Once you have printed and completed these forms, mail them to the Claims Intake Center assigned to the state where you live. You can find the mailing address for the correct Claims Intake Center here
No matter how you apply (online or by paper), you will be asked for information about your disability.
If you are 65 years of age or older, or if the Social Security Administration has already found that you’re disabled, you will not need to provide evidence of your disability.
Everyone else should been prepared to submit evidence relating to all of your disabilities (even if you don’t think they are enough to qualify for pension benefits). Such evidence might be a letter from a doctor or medical records showing your doctor’s diagnosis. If you can’t get evidence of your disability, the VA will help you get the records, but you must identify:
- your doctor,
- the condition for which you were treated, and
- when you were treated.
The VA has a duty to help you collect all available medical evidence. However, the more you can collect on your own, the more quickly your application can be processed. This is especially true of medical evidence that is not coming from within the VA Health system. To be safe, it is best to collect as much information on your own as you can.
If the VA is not able to rate your disabilities based on the available paper evidence, the VA will schedule you for an exam by a VA doctor.
You must sign all VA Forms that you submit. The VA will return any forms that are not signed, and your claim will take longer to process.
Can I get help with my application?
The VA system can sometimes be complicated. If you need help with your application, you can get it from:
- your VA Regional Office. Find contact information here
- Veterans’ Service Organizations. To get such help, you may need to complete another form, either VA Form 21-22 or VA Form 21-22A.
- a veterans’ advocate and/or an attorney with experience handling veterans’ benefits.
NOTE: Be aware of “pension poaching scams” and take care when selecting someone to help you. Go here for more details. The government provides a search for identifying accredited advocates and attorneys here
As of 2015, it usually took the VA 6-9 months to process a new application for pension benefits. But if you are awarded benefits, your payments will usually be calculated from the date that the VA first received your claim.
How long will I receive pension benefits?
Once VA pension benefits are awarded, you will get monthly payments as long as you still qualify. Your benefits will be re-calculated each year. They may increase or decrease based on your current circumstances and on the MAPRs set for that year. The VA will get the most up-to-date information about you by:
- requesting that you file an “Eligibility Verification Report” (“EVR”), which asks for information about your previous year’s income and likely income for the coming year, and
- checking with the Social Security Administration and the IRS to collect information about your income.
If the VA requests an EVR, you must provide what is asked for. If you don’t, the VA can cut off your benefits.
Your pension rate can be increased if your income decreases. In this situation, submit information showing the decrease in your income as soon as possible. If you don’t provide such information in the same year that your income decreases or the next year, you will miss out on the increased rate for that year.
Your pension rate can be decreased if your income increases. And your pension can end if your net worth (income and property) increases so much that you no longer qualify. Sometimes benefits will end immediately, and other times they will end on the first day of the next calendar year. If your net worth later decreases enough that you can again show “need,” you should file a new application with the VA as soon as possible. If filed within one year of when your benefits ended, pension benefits can restart immediately.
NOTE: Be sure that the VA always has your current address. If the VA’s letters to you are returned “address unknown,” benefits can be ended.
Will I be cut off if the VA thinks I have more income or property than I really have?
Sometimes the information you give to the VA will be different from what the Social Security Administration or the IRS sent to the VA. Or the VA will question your reports for some other reason. If this happens, the VA will contact you and asked for additional information about when you earned certain income. If you do not respond within 60 days, the VA may decrease or end your benefits and might even ask you to pay back the amount that the VA thinks it overpaid you. To avoid this, provide whatever business or legal documents you have (such as bank statements, wage statements or probate papers) showing when you got the income. If you don’t have such documents but you believe the VA has wrong information (for example, certain income was earned earlier, before you became eligible for pension benefits), tell this to the VA in your response. In such a case, the VA will investigate further on its own.
What will change if the VA's proposed rule becomes law?
In late-January 2015, the VA proposed a new rule that could change the current rules for pension benefits in important ways. The VA is expects this to become law in January 2016. If it does, here are the most important proposed changes:
- The VA will define a “net worth limit” for determining “need” for the Improved Pension. This means that the VA will deny or end your pension if your net worth (income and property) is more than the “net worth limit.” The “net worth limit” will be set each year by the VA. The amount in 2015 is $119,220.
- The VA will use a “look-back” period of 36 months and a penalty period for “unauthorized asset transfers.” This means that the VA will assume that any sale or transfer of property that the you made during the 36-month period before becoming eligible for pension benefits was done in order to qualify. If the VA finds such an “unauthorized asset transfers,” you would be disqualified for up to 10 years. To avoid this penalty, you would have to show “clear and convincing” evidence that you did not sell or give away property in order to qualify.
Resource Date: July 2018