Who will represent you?
When you as a veteran choose a veterans representative, you need to choose what kind of representation is in your best interest. You must consider financial issues, the complexity of your claims, and the skills or limitations of the representative. Is your representative an accredited agent representative or an attorney? Will your representative represent you from start to finish with some pro bono representation included in your agreement? Will your representative represent you on claims in which he or she can receive a fee or will he or she represent you for free? Free is always the best option with everything else being equal. However, free is less attractive when the representative does not have the kind of attitude you need. Whether or not the representative is paid or for free, your representative may have a poor attitude toward your case if he or she lacks a financial interest in its outcome. A representative may have a lackluster attitude toward your claims that are not on appeal, because attorneys and paid representatives cannot receive a fee in such a case. Also, apart from the donations that veterans’ organizations receive, state salaried or veterans’ organization representatives and/or volunteers do not have an interest in the outcome of any of your claims.
Guidelines for choosing to use an attorney or accredited VA representative
Here are some guidelines for you to consider when you choose an attorney or an accredited representative and/or veterans’ organization or state representative that can assist you with your Veterans Affairs claims:
Attorney and/or Accredited VA Representative
- By agreeing to a fee agreement with an attorney or an accredited VA representative, you are agreeing to pay the attorney or accredited agent representative at least 20 per cent of the back check which resulted from any decision on appeal. A 20 percent fee is presumed to be a valid fee. However, attorneys and accredited representatives are allowed to charge up to 33% depending on the complexity of your claims and the skills they bring to you as an attorney or agent representative. The difference between 20% and 33% of your retroactive payment is a financial consideration for you.
- Before making a financial decision when hiring an attorney or accredited agent, it would be helpful to you to consider the following: the experience and skills of the attorney or accredited agent representative, whether the representative drafts and advances the cost of obtaining medical and psychiatric evidence and opinions to use in your case, and whether your representative develops your overall claim to include all possible claims.
Please consider that attorneys are only allowed a fee after a Notice of Disagreement is filed in any of your claims.
- Attorneys and accredited agents are allowed to charge a consultation fee anytime the attorney gives you advice about a new claim. Does the attorney or agent actually charge you the consultation fee? Do you have to pay the consultation fee up front during any of your claims interview, or is the attorney or accredited agent willing to accept payment after you receive a decision resulting in a retroactive payment to you? These are more important considerations to you.
- Attorneys and accredited agents are allowed to receive a fee to review your claims file. Does the attorney or the accredited agent actually charge you for the review of your claims file? If the attorney or accredited agent does charge for the review of the claims file, how much will you be charged per hour? Is there a limitation or flat fee for the review? Will you be allowed to pay the attorney or accredited agent after you receive a decision resulting in retroactive benefits as well? Do the consultation fee and the fee for review of your claims file discourage you from using an attorney or accredited agent at all, or are you willing to continue to search for an attorney or accredited agent that does not charge a consultation fee or fee for review of the claims file? These also are more important considerations to you.
- Since the attorney can only receive a fee for decisions that are on appeal after a Notice is Disagreement is filed, will the attorney or accredited agent be willing to assist you from start to finish with any present or future claim that you have even if he or she cannot receive a fee? Will the attorney or accredited agent assist you with claims that need to be filed in the future while he is assisting you with claims already on appeal? Will you need to receive assistance from traditional veterans’ organizations that assist with VA claims? This could, in some instances, complicate things for you by causing multiple representation issues or the revoking of the power of attorney or accredited agent.
When is an attorney or accredited agent willing to accept your VA claim?
- At the initial interview, you present your facts to the attorney or accredited agent and the facts you present are able to create a plausible basis to support your claims in the future after the evidence is received. Representation of this nature may be useful to you in order to establish the earliest possible effective date for a new claim.
- Some attorneys or accredited agents accept your claim after the evidence is actually received and reviewed by the attorney or accredited agent. Representation of this nature would result a more speedy decision after receipt of the evidence; however, you may be losing monthly benefits for years before the evidence is actually received and reviewed.
- Some attorneys or accredited agents represent you only after the receipt of your claims file. Representation of this nature is useful for determining the issues when you do not remember all or some of your claims history. Such representation can be useful when there are claims based on new and material evidence or clear and unmistakable error, or where the VA failed to observe its duty to assist in the development of your claim(s). Sometimes the failure of VA to do what it is supposed to do for you during previous claims can result in large retroactive payments to you. Otherwise, you may lose monthly benefits for months to years before the VA actually sends the claims file to you or the attorney or accredited agent.
Where is the focus of the attorney or accredited agent?
- Agents cannot represent veterans at the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims and/or Circuit Court. However, attorneys can. If you are working with an attorney on a complicated claim, is he or she an effective advocate with the CAVC? Or is the attorney better at assisting you with claims at the administrative level either at your Regional Office or the Board of Veterans’ Appeals? Will the attorney give consistent attention to your case during the entire claims process? Or will the attorney only be active in assisting you specific problems as they occur during the claims process?
- Is the attorney or agent honest with you about any conflict of interest issues or ethical concerns he or she may have while assisting you with your claims? Advice on a new claim can sometimes reduce the attorneys fee for claims on appeal. Also, when an attorney assists you with claims not on appeal, the submission of medical or psychiatric opinions prior to a Notice of Disagreement being filed may not be in the best interest of the attorney or accredited agent (because the representative may not receive a fee), even if this is in your best interest.
Veterans' Organizations / State Representatives and or Volunteers
When it comes to traditional veterans’ organizations or state representatives and /or volunteers that assist you with veterans’ claims, free is often the best option. Sometimes, however, you get what you pay for. You should consider for yourself what kind of representation is best for you: for free or for a fee.
Skills of your non-attorney representative:
- Many veterans’ organizations are provided space to work on your veterans claims at most of the VA Regional Offices. The various veterans’ organization representatives may have a small support staff. The veterans’ service officers at the Regional Offices do have the advantages of being able to access the claims files and have personal contact with the decision review officers and other VA staff. You may have heard of some of these organizations: American Legion, DAV, VFW, Vietnam Veterans of America, Marine Corps League, Purple Heart Association, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Blinded Veterans Association, etc. Some Regional Offices do not provide space for service organizations at the Regional Office. For instance, in WV a veteran’s representative switches hats from the American Legion, VFW, DAV, or state representative, etc., at the Regional Office. Throughout every state in America, there are veterans’ posts for many or all of these veterans’ organizations. There are elected commanders for each of these posts and other officers to include elected post service officers.
- Service officers may not have any knowledge about the claims process, or they may be very knowledgeable, depending on their education and training. Service officers at a Regional Office or a veterans post can have from less than a high school education to being a college graduate. It would be helpful for you to know the educational level and training of your representative. Veterans’ organizations service representatives at the VA normally provide some training to the representatives. It is less likely that a veterans’ post service officer would have as much training as a veterans’ representative at a Regional Office. Sometimes veterans’ organizations call their representatives “service officers.”
- Since there is only one Regional Office in most states, veterans’ service officers at the local post assist veterans with their application for benefits and sometimes with appeals. Up until recently, this paperwork was then sent either to the service representative or service officer at the Regional Office for filing or is sent directly to the VA Regional Office. Now, however, all documents must be sent or faxed to Evidence Centers in Newnan, GA or Janesville, WI for scanning.
- You can call the service officer in the various organizations to inquire about your claim. Veterans’ organizations service officer programs are funded by government funding and/or donations. There are state representatives that are paid by government as well in most states throughout the country. The skills of these representatives are similar to those of the veterans’ organization representatives at the Regional Offices in the various states.
- The attitude of veterans’ organizations’ representatives, service officers or representatives paid by the state vary from being motivated to assist veterans to very poor. It would be helpful for you to know from other veterans the attitude history of your representative. Veterans have not had any other option until recently, and there has been a long history of attitude problems with some representatives. Historically, veterans have been turned away or treated rudely, or have been told to file one issue at a time or to not appeal decision. If you feel it’s in your best interest to have a representative for free, it would be helpful for you to make sure your representative does not have an attitude problem.
Medical and/or psychiatric records and opinions:
- Veterans’ organization and state representatives normally do not receive a budget for sending away for your civilian records. When you sign a release of information, you normally sign a release for the VA to get those records. Otherwise, you have to obtain those records yourself. Also, these representatives do not have the funds for medical or psychiatric opinions. However, attorneys normally have the funds to obtain your civilian medical records and have the skills to assist with medical and psychiatric opinions.
Evaluate what you want. Free is always the best option with everything being equal. However, free is an awful option if it doesn’t do the job for you. It is up to you to decide.