Should I File a VA Disability Appeal on My Own or Hire an Attorney?
Your claim has been denied…now what?
You went through all of the work to prepare your VA disability claim paperwork, compiled and submitted medical and service records, and answered every question truthfully and as thoroughly as you could. You even went to the C&P exam and answered that doctor’s questions and submitted to the tests they requested. Then with trembling hands you opened the envelope several months later to read the decision from the VA. Denied. Deep breath, cuss words, maybe a few tears.
What next? Now what am I (or your loved one) supposed to do?
The good news is that an initial denial of a VA disability claim is not the end of the process, just the end of the first phase. According to VA published statistics, around 75% of initial disability claims are denied. That sounds like intimidating odds, but phase 2 – appeals of those decisions – especially when the veteran has the assistance of an attorney, has much better odds of success.
Why should you appeal rather than just giving up?
Why should you appeal instead of just giving up when you receive that initial decision letter? Because the VA might have got it wrong. It happens more often than you might think. Furthermore, the mistakes are often fixable on appeal.
The VA disability process focuses on making several key decisions – is the Veteran suffering from a condition that is service-connected? If so, how serious is the condition (on a scale of 10-100%) and what is the effective date for the start of benefit entitlement?
Sometimes these questions are easy to answer.
For example, if you were directly injured during a combat mission, it’s not hard to explain to the VA that the injuries you suffered are service-connected. Similarly, the severity of your condition may be fairly straightforward. If you lose an eye, or a limb, the seriousness is fairly self-evident. However, if you start showing PTSD symptoms three months after your discharge, its a more complicated analysis.
Do you have PTSD, a complicated diagnosis process by itself? and if you do, was it because of something that happened during your military service, or was it because of something that happened after your discharge? You might not even know.
There may be another reason your first ever disability application was unsuccessful. You might not have included all of the right information for your claim. You might have missed some information that would support your claim, but you don’t know it would. You are not an expert in navigating the bureaucracy of disability claims.
Because some claims are more complicated than others, and because you are not trained in the nuances of a disability claim, it’s possible that an experienced disability lawyer can bring more expertise to the problem that caused a denial and fix it.
A brief overview of a VA Disability Appeal
If you disagree with the VA’s decision in their Notification letter, you have a year to appeal that decision. You can hire a law firm to assist you on appeal (many will agree to not get paid unless and until you do), and they can make sure that the VA has the necessary information, medical records, witness testimony, and any other evidence or arguments necessary to correct the VA decision.
Here are the typical steps for a VA disability claim appeal process. The first step is determining what and how to appeal. For VA decisions dated on or after February 19, 2019, you can choose from three decision review options, depending on what you want to have reviewed. The three review options are: Supplemental Claim, Higher-Level Review, or Board Appeal. (Don’t worry, if you don’t like the results of the first option you choose, you will have the opportunity to later pursue a different option).
A Supplemental Claim appeal may be the right choice if you have new, relevant evidence that wasn’t part of the initial claim file. A Higher-Level Review appeal is a request for a second, more experienced, examiner to review the evidence already in the file. A Board Appeal may be chosen if you want an expert Veterans Law Judge at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington, D.C. to review the file. This can include a request for hearing and an opportunity to talk to the judge directly.
Within one year of your decision notification letter, you’ll need to file the appropriate decision review form, depending on which type of appeal you want. This will also be the time to request whether you want a virtual, videoconference, or in person hearing.
Obviously each type of appeal process will have its own timeline, but after the VA processes that appeal, a decision will be issued by the VA in writing.
If you still do not like that decision, there is sometimes the possibility of an additional review. You can ask for a Board Review of a Supplemental Claim or Higher-Level Review decision.
Why and how to get a VA Disability appeal attorney – main section?
Finding the right VA Disability appeal attorney is crucial to getting the best guidance and representation through the VA disability appeal process. Keep in mind that most attorneys who handle these appeals will arrange for their fees to be paid out of whatever benefits award you eventually get. If it is important for you to not have to pay out of pocket for a lawyer to handle your appeal, check to see if that option is available.
Understanding that it is frequent to not have to pay up front for fees, that frees you to look for high quality representation with a law firm that specializes in VA disability appeals.
There are many good lawyers in the world, but all have their own niches and focus of experience. What you want is a law firm that has helped hundreds, even thousands, of other veterans through the type of disability appeals process that you are going through. Expertise comes with years of experience, and handling lots of cases provides these specialized lawyers with a nuanced understanding of what is needed for a successful appeal.
Keep in mind that even within the pool of law firms that handle VA disability appeals, not all firms focus on some of the more complex disabilities claims. For example, some do not handle PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) or MST (military sexual trauma) because they are more difficult to prove to the VA. Some law firms, however, have embraced the complexity and become very experienced in collecting and assembling the necessary medical and psychological information to succeed in appeals on these claims.
At the end of the day, select a law firm that has the experience and focus that is most likely to lead to a reliable analysis of your appeal prospects, and the expertise to handle it from filing through the hearing phase.
Are you ready for a free analysis of your VA disability claim appeal prospects? Veterans Law Group has helped thousands of veterans just like you in handling successful appeals.