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The Importance of Establishing Veterans Benefits While in Prison

Imprisoned veterans across the country need to know about the service-connected disability compensation and rehabilitation benefits they may be eligible for. Even as prisoners, veterans still have options which are not available to the general population that could greatly impact their lives, especially as they work toward release.

An incarcerated veteran with a felony is not limited from applying for service-connected disability compensation, pension, survivors’ dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), or educational assistance. However, many of these benefits are limited or greatly restricted. Despite this, there are steps that can be taken while incarcerated that could have a positive impact on life inside, and upon release.

The funds received from VA benefits are protected under federal law throughout imprisonment. They cannot be seized by the government for restitution or for costs of captivity.

Prisoners with family can get them an apportioned amount of their compensation benefits while they serve the remainder of their sentences. Those without family may be entitled to increased benefits which will become available once you are released.

In addition, there are vocational rehabilitation benefits (VR&E) which prisoners can establish the criteria to be eligible for rehabilitation and in some cases start the process to get retraining.

Service-Connected Disability Compensation

To be eligible for service-connected disability compensation, a person must have left the service under circumstances other than a dishonorable discharge. Those with a dishonorable discharge need to get that fixed first, before becoming entitled to service-connected disability compensation. This can prove very problematic while in prison.

Incarceration affects the amount a veteran can personally receive while in prison. The VA will limit entitlement to compensation at a maximum amount of 10% to be provided to the veteran while they are incarcerated. As of the writing of this article, 10% is equivalent to $144.14. If a disability award of 10% is received then the individual is entitled to receive half this amount.

For a single veteran, the most that can be received while incarcerated is the amount equivalent to 10% which currently is $144.14. The VA provides cost-of-living increases annually. For those able to obtain higher ratings than the amount upon getting out of prison, this would increase to the amount based on service-connected disability. A single veteran who has a 30% disability rating would be entitled to $441.35. A single veteran who has a 50% disability rating would be entitled to $905.04. A single veteran who has a 70% disability rating would be entitled to $1,444.71 a month. A single veteran who is unemployable as a result of their service-connected disabilities would be entitled to $3,146.42 a month.

The importance of establishing an increased disability rating while in prison will go directly to improving chances of being successful upon release. If have a 50% service-connected disability, then when you get out of prison, you would be entitled to receive $905.04 a month in benefits. If you have limited skills or job opportunities limited to minimum wage work, then receiving an additional $905.04 a month is probably enough to help make it.

Those who are married veteran and/or have dependents may be able to have increased benefits apportioned to the family during periods of incarceration. A married imprisoned veteran with a 50% disability rating would receive $144.14 a month. The remaining amount of the benefits for a married veteran could be apportioned to a spouse and/or dependents.

After release, a married veteran who is receiving a 50% rating is entitled to $992.04 a month. You can also get additional benefits depending on how many dependents you have.

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR&E)

While incarcerated, veterans should look into ideas for what they can do as a vocation once they get out. To be eligible for vocational rehabilitation through the VA, veterans need to either have a VA service-connected disability of at least 20% with an employment handicap or be rated at 10% with a serious employment handicap. In either scenario, they still must be discharged from military service under other than dishonorable conditions.

Veterans in prisons can prepare to receive assistance from VR&E through five separate paths. They are:

• reemployment with previous employer,

• rapid access to employment,

• self-employment,

• employment through long-term service, and

• independent living services.

While going through the VR&E program, formerly-imprisoned veterans can also be given a subsistence allowance based on the rate of your attendance for any additional training or the number of dependents supported by the veteran and the type of training. These are all things that you can line up to qualify for prior to getting out. Sometimes these applications can take many months so it is important to start thinking now about your future.

With service-connected disabilities and monies that received from that, coupled with a small subsistence allowance while going through the training and a part-time job, former prisoners could get through the retraining which would allow earning a much greater pay.

How to Get Started

Most incarcerated veterans may need help with their claim. Doing a claim without getting a representative is not advised. Given the limited access to resources and abilities to communicate, it can be much too difficult to effectively process a claim alone. Those interested should look into getting a Veteran Service Organization (VSO), accredited claimant’s agent, or an attorney.

VA law is a vibrant growing practice of law. There are typically 20 to 30 new published opinions from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or the Federal Circuit that you should read to stay up on this area of law. The VA is annually proposing modifications to the regulations (CFRs) that can affect your claim. There are lots of laws in Congress that are typically either being passed or attempting to be passed which can also affect how these claims are processed. This is not an easy area to stay up on, and understand.

VSOs usually do not charge a fee in these cases. Accredited claimant’s agents and attorneys typically charge a fee of 20% or 30% of the back due benefits. They are not allowed to charge for an initial claim, only after a decision is rendered can they appeal the claim and get a fee. There are also costs which are in addition to the fees. These can prove to be expensive if you do not have the cooperation of your treating physician.

When a fee is charged, if the fee is 20%, then the VA will withhold that amount from the back due benefits. Because of the case, Snyder v. Nicholson 489 F.3d 1213 (2007) an accredited claimant’s agent or attorney can charge a fee and get the full 20% of the total amount of back due benefits that would normally be due in a claim. Even though the veteran is limited to the 10% of the benefits, the representative will be paid based on the full increase. This is important because if you want help on your claim, to have an accredited claimant’s agent and/or attorney will be instrumental to deal with these issues.

If you are a single veteran then the attorney’s fees will minimally affect you because you would only get back due benefits of at most, 10% because of your incarceration. If you are a married veteran then it would affect some of the back due money that your family could receive; however, given the difficulty of communications and processing this claim, it is well worth it to have a representative.

What You Need to Do

You are going to need to establish medical information to support your claims. It is difficult in prison but you need to establish treatment to evaluate your service-related conditions. For physical issues, make sure you have whatever objective diagnostic testing is necessary to evaluate the extent of your problem. For mental issues, establish continuity of treatment and give examples of the severity of the conditions and how these conditions relate back to service. It’s best to do this immediately.

For veterans with a felony conviction, credibility may be suspect. Establishing lay letters from either people you served with or who are aware of the severity of your conditions since service can be a big help strengthening credibility. These letters should include addresses, phone numbers and any other contact information. If you have any questions on this process, you can contact me below. 

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