After struggling to help her mother–the wife of a World War II veteran–receive benefits from the Veterans Administration (VA), Debbie Burak founded VeteranAid.org to ensure that other families of veterans wouldn’t have to go through the same ordeal.
The site is devoted to informing veterans and their families about the little-known Aid and Attendance Pension Benefit, which allows for veterans and surviving spouses who require the attendance of another person with eating, bathing, dressing, undressing, medication dosing or other needs to receive additional monetary benefits.
Here, Debbie shares her story and offers insight into how the program works and who qualifies.
VeteranAid.org was created as a result of my own personal experience as the daughter of aging parents who cared for them over a nine-year period.
My dad was a WWII Veteran, and with several requests to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) for any resources to help defer costs, we were told seven times that since he was not injured during his time of service. This supposedly rendered him ineligible for any assistance.
I learned after his passing and having to move my mother that there was, in fact, a VA benefit that would have helped to pay for their care, and they had missed out (at that time) on over $140,000 from the Aid and Attendance Benefit.
I made an application for my mom as the surviving spouse. While she was awarded the full pension, she did not live to see the VA release her monies.
I knew that I had knowledge of a hidden financial resource that veterans and their widows were not informed about, and that the Aid and Attendance Pension Benefit could be the determining factor in the quality of care and services to be afforded. And so I set out to change the ending for others. I wanted to try and be a light for those only just beginning the journey of caring for an older loved one.
I launched the website in November 2005 with the intention of raising national awareness of this little-known benefit, with the goal of making the program as popular as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Read more about my story here.
The site is dedicated to my mom and dad, Frank and Lillie Cicirelli.
Again, through my own experiences of dealing with the failings of the VA, and having so much respect for the sacrifice of service to our country, I felt compelled to do my part to honor that.
I had first-hand knowledge of the impact this VA benefit provides, and remaining silent was not an option for me.
When our veterans are no longer strapping young men and women stepping up to defend our country, but instead need a grateful nation to step up in their time of need, there has to be a way in which to make that happen.
Aid and Attendance is a pension benefit. It is part of a three-tier pension program known as “Improved Pension,” which consists of “Basic,” “Housebound,” and the highest level of “Aid and Attendance.” It is frequently referred to as “A&A.”
It is a tax-free financial resource that can help with the costs of care in later years when either the veteran or their widow or widower now requires the assistance of others for daily living. It can help with care being provided either in-home or in a facility.
These are the current maximum awards under the program:
- $1,881 per month for a single veteran who needs care
- $2,230 per month for a veteran and their spouse
- $1,209 per month for a surviving spouse of a veteran
Unlike the Compensation benefit for service-connected injuries, the Aid and Attendance benefit does not require that veterans had to be injured during their time in service.
They do not have to be service-connected, they do not have to have retired from the military, and they do not actually have to have been in combat.
This pension is means-tested as a needs-based pension, and financial requirements do have to be met.
- A veteran who served at least 90 days, one of which was during an approved period of war.
- Must have an Honorable Discharge.
- A surviving spouse is also eligible at a reduced rate listed above.
- For veterans of more recent conflicts, they must have served 180 consecutive days with an Honorable Discharge.
What’s noteworthy is that any veteran who is rated at 100% service-connected–and who now requires the assistance of others due to that service-connected disability–has the ability to have the addition of A&A on top of their Compensation. The 100% rating is the only exception where a veteran can draw both compensation and pension.
For low-income veterans who meet the criteria, they are eligible for the lower level of Basic if they fall below the monthly income threshold. There is no requirement for needing assistance with daily living for the Basic level.
Veterans or their families need to complete the appropriate VA application–either as the veteran VA form 21-527EZ (for the veteran) or 21-534EZ (for the surviving spouse)–as well as all other forms and supporting documents that have to be included with the application. Then, they are required to send them to the appropriate Pension Maintenance Center assigned to their state.
The A&A program is not all that well-known in veteran communities; given that it has been an entitlement for the past 64 years, this is alarming. Millions of senior veterans and their widows have gone without the care they needed simply because they were not aware of this financial resource.
The belief that the veteran had to be injured during their time of service to be eligible for anything other than utilizing the G.I. Bill for school or a VA loan to purchase a home.
The misinformation at local VA offices is far too common because the majority of their training focuses on Compensation claims and not Pension benefits.
The first question asked at the VA office is often, “What is the applicant’s monthly income?” When the response is, for example, $1,150, the applicant will be told they exceed income limits.
Applicants are never asked if they have services coming into the home for care or if they are in a facility, which are truly the key questions, since those amounts being paid for care are allowable medical deductions; once you deduct that expense, you will find that most are either zero or negative at the end of the month. The result is that they do not exceed income thresholds. And, in fact, they do qualify.
I’ve lost count of the number of folks I have dealt with who left a VA local office being told they did not qualify because this question was not asked.
- Not sending in a completed aid and attendance form with all necessary documents supporting the claim.
- Not keeping a complete copy of everything for your own records.
- Dropping documents off at a local VA office rather than sending them to the appropriate Pension Maintenance Center for their state.
- Not mailing Return Receipt for proof of delivery.
- Educate yourself about the pension.
- Use the VeteranAid.org website
- Access the website’s supporting forums for everything you need in the way of forms, mailing addresses, and questions you may have about a specific issue your applicant may have. The website is written to basically walk you through this process. The forums, with over 4,600 registered members, are a virtual library.
You should be aware that this pension has become a calling card for many financial planners who offer to restructure assets for the purpose of qualifying financially; often, this has negative impacts. While the VA does not currently count annuities as an asset, Medicaid does. When you are looking at long-term planning, it is advisable to factor in all possible scenarios.
Veterans should also stay up to date on a current rule proposal dealing with net worth, asset transfers, and income inclusions for needs-based benefits, which they can learn more about here.