How Do VA Disability Ratings Work?
Published July 8, 2022
VA disability ratings can be confusing. Even if your VA disability claim was approved, your VA disability rating (somewhere between 0-100%) might feel like an arbitrary number that doesn’t adequately reflect your disability or appropriate benefits.
This article explains what VA disability ratings are, how they work, and whether you can increase VA disability ratings.
What is a VA Disability Rating?
VA disability ratings are percentages assigned to a veteran’s disability, individually and overall, during the VA disability claim process. The overall rating (or combined rating) determines how your monthly benefit payments are calculated. The individual percentages assigned to each disability claim are based upon a series of criteria in statutes and regulations for various types of disabling conditions. Your symptoms and conditions are matched against those criteria. Whichever one matches most closely will be your individual disability rating for that condition.
If you have more than one disability rating, those ratings will be combined through a complicated process (not simple addition) to arrive at an overall VA disability rating. You can run calculations on our VA disability benefits calculator.
Your overall or combined VA disability rating is used as part of the equation for calculating your monthly benefit dollar amount if your VA disability claim has been granted. Higher ratings will have higher monthly payments than lower ratings.
The VA sometimes assigns a zero percent (0%) rating to a disability which may seem strange. A 0% disability rating means that the VA agrees that you have the identified condition but doesn’t believe it meets the criteria for a higher rating percentage at this time.
An individual VA disability rating may change over time if your condition worsens. The good news about having any disability rating, even a 0%, is that the VA acknowledges that you have the identified condition and it is related to service. Therefore, if you later go back and ask for an increased rating, you don’t have to re-prove that you have the condition or that it is related to your service. An overall VA disability rating (sometimes called a “combined rating”) may also change if any of your individual disability ratings change, but not necessarily due to the complicated process of calculating an overall VA disability rating. Use our ratings calculator to get a better idea of your situation.
How do VA Disability Ratings work?
Getting an individual VA disability rating assigned to you for a service-related physical or mental condition is an automatic part of the VA disability benefits claims process, as is an overall VA disability rating which may be different than your individual percentage if you have more than one disability. During that process, VA examiners must decide whether you currently suffer from an identified physical or mental condition and whether it is service-connected (caused or made worse by your military service). If those two things exist, then the VA needs to determine your condition’s severity and the effective date for benefits. Each of your conditions, based upon pre-established criteria, is assigned a percentage from 0-100%.
Here’s an example. When evaluating a PTSD claim, a 0% rating acknowledges that the mental condition has been formally diagnosed but isn’t severe enough to interfere with your job or social interactions and doesn’t require continuous medication. A 30% rating means you are experiencing symptoms, but you can manage them, allowing you to at least generally function in your social and professional life. A 50% rating reflects reduced functioning in work and personal life due to flattened affect, panic attacks more than once a week, difficulty understanding complex commands, memory impairment, and difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships. A 100% rating reflects total impairment, symptoms such as thought impairment, disorientation, and danger to self and others.
The VA maintains lists of ratings levels and the corresponding symptoms for PTSD and other conditions. Those lists are used as the reference for VA examiners and medical professionals who evaluate veterans during a Compensation & Pension (C&P) Exam.
How long does it take to receive your individual and overall VA disability rating? As long as it takes to process your VA disability benefits claim. The VA disability process, at its initial level (before VA claim appeals), currently takes around 4-5 months from the initial application until the initial decision, though sometimes it takes more time. If you disagree with either rating, you have an opportunity to appeal the decision within one year.
How do VA disability ratings work if you have more than one disability?
As discussed above, veterans frequently have more than one disability in a VA disability benefits claim. The VA evaluates each disability separately, and if they agree that one or more disabilities are service-connected, the VA will assign individual disability ratings for each one and an overall (or combined) rating.
For example, a veteran could have impaired vision due to an explosion but also suffers from PTSD. By comparing each condition against the ratings criteria, the veteran may be given a 50% disability rating for vision and a 30% disability rating for PTSD.
The overall VA disability rating is not calculated by just adding up the individual ratings. It is impossible to have a combined rating higher than 100%, no matter your conditions.
To be honest, the way combined disability ratings are calculated is a little complicated to understand, especially if you have PTSD or difficulty with focus or attention to details. You may want just to skip the explanation and use the VA’s calculator or review it with your representative.
If you want to find out how the VA calculates its overall disability ratings, you can compare your disability ratings with tables the VA publishes. To find your overall disability ratings number, you need to have handy (1) your highest disability rating and (2) your next lowest disability rating. For example, if you have two rated conditions, one at 50% disability rating and the other at 30%, you’ll need those first two (50% and 30%) to read the calculation charts. Then you’ll want to look at the tables and find your highest number (in this example, 50) on the left column and your lower number (in this example, 30) on the top row. Where those two lines intersect is a number (in this example, that would be 65). You take that number (65 here) and round up to the nearest 10% (in this case, 65 rounds up to 70). That number (70 in our example) is your overall VA disability rating.
If you have more than two individual VA disability ratings, it’s even more complicated. For example, if you add a third rating to our example above, say a 10% rating for another condition, you repeat the above process to the point where you have the 65 number. Then, instead of rounding to the nearest 10%, you will carry that 65 number back to the table, use it for the left column number, and find where it intersects with a 10 on the top row. In our example here, the intersecting number is 69. You take that number (69 here) and round up to the nearest 10% (in this case, 69 also rounds up to 70). That number (70 here) would be your combined disability rating, and in this example is no different than if the third, 10% rating disability didn’t exist. However, if the third disability rating were a little higher, like 30% instead of 10%, following the same process results in 76, which would round up to an 80% overall disability rating.
If you have multiple individual disability ratings, the VA will combine them first using this process, then use the overall VA disability rating as part of the calculation of monthly benefit payments you will receive.
Is it possible to increase your VA Disability Rating?
Yes, and you can do this more than once. If you believe that the VA underrated your disability in their initial decision on your VA disability claim, you have one year to appeal that decision.
Suppose your condition worsens after an individual disability rating has been assigned and after the one-year period of time for an appeal has passed. In that case, you may request the VA to re-evaluate your condition and possibly increase your VA disability rating. This actually happens quite frequently.
In this instance, you would file a request for an increased rating and provide the VA with updated evidence supporting the worsening of your condition (often from your physician or psychiatrist or an expert retained by your attorney) and possible evidence from your employer, friends, or family members demonstrating the worsening of your condition.
For purposes of a request for an increased rating, the VA already acknowledges that your disability exists. Upon this new request, they would evaluate whether your situation has worsened to a level that better matches a higher disability rating. The VA will often schedule a new C&P Exam to evaluate you as part of this process.
You should carefully consider when and how to file a request for an increased rating for two reasons. First, a small increased individual rating may not change your overall rating at all, in which case it may not increase your monthly benefit payments at all. Second, understand that with a new C&P Exam, the VA could find that your condition has actually improved and reduce your individual disability rating (and perhaps also your overall disability rating).
What does it mean to be 100% disabled by the VA?
A 100% VA disability rating is the highest rating available and generally reflects the unfortunate reality of extreme service-connected disability, either as to a single condition or collectively for multiple conditions.
There are two types of 100% disability ratings, schedular and total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU). A 100% schedular disability rating either means that one physical or psychological condition meets the 100% criteria listed in the VA’s reference charts or that your overall disability rating is 100%. An unemployability (TDIU) finding, though not referred to as a “100% disability rating,” means that the VA treats you as having a 100% disability rating, even if the calculations of your individual ratings do not result in a 100% disability rating.
If you have been struggling to maintain substantial gainful employment but currently only have a low overall disability rating, it may be time to consider requesting a TDIU (total disability based on individual unemployability) finding from the VA.
What is the VA 5 Year Rule?
Can the VA reduce your VA disability ratings? Yes. The VA is allowed to reexamine a veteran’s condition within the first five years if the veteran’s condition if material improvement is expected over time. The so-called “5 Year Rule” states that the VA cannot reduce a VA disability rating if it has been in place for at least five years. The exception to this 5 Year Rule is if the veteran’s condition shows sustained improvement from when the initial rating decision was made.
Other rules protect veterans over time from having any re-evaluation or reduction in their disability rating. There is a 10-Year Rule, a 20-Year Rule, a 55-Year (or Age) Rule, and a 100% Rule. However, remember that if the initial disability was fraudulent, these rules wouldn’t protect the veteran. If you want to see how these rules affect your claim, please contact your representative.
Should I consult an attorney to increase my VA Disability Rating?
If you want to increase your VA disability rating, either on an appeal or a request for increased ratings, you can and likely should consult with an attorney. A specialized VA disability attorney has the knowledge and experience to help review your current situation and see if there is any likelihood of success or resulting benefit to filing an appeal or requesting a ratings increase.
While this is your first and only time navigating the complex VA disability benefits claims process, a VA disability claim attorney will have seen hundreds or thousands of cases much like yours and knows what evidence the VA needs to see to get you the VA disability ratings increase you want and help you compile and present it. They can also help you determine whether you might be appropriate for a TDIU finding. Individual unemployability doesn’t mean you are entirely unable to work but reflects an inability to maintain gainful employment at a level above federal poverty levels.
Most VA disability attorneys work on a contingency basis – they don’t get paid unless and until you get a successful outcome in your case, even if that takes years.
Are you ready to have the experienced lawyers at Veterans Law Group provide you with a free evaluation of your case? They have helped thousands of veterans like you obtain millions of dollars in disability benefits. Maybe we can help you too.