You may have heard horror stories about veterans just like yourself having problems getting benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. You may have also heard the time-honored phrase "get yourself a lawyer before you deal with the VA" from your friends.
Should you hire a lawyer? How do you pick a lawyer? How much does a lawyer cost? We attempt to answer those questions here.
Should You Hire a Lawyer When Dealing With The VA?
Of course that's a personal choice, but before you go and hire a lawyer to help with your VA claim, there are a few things to know.
First, the only reason to hire an attorney is if you believe that they can help you get a better result from the VA on a disability claim that has been denied, or not rated high enough for your liking. That’s it. There is no other good reason.
Secondly, current law prevents a lawyer from charging you for any assistance in filing an initial claim for VA disability benefits. The lawyer can only charge you for help when you challenge a VA decision on your disability claim.
So, most likely, a reputable lawyer won't even touch your case until you have filed for disability compensation and gotten a decision back from the VA that you disagree with. Most lawyers won't work for free. Any lawyer who says they will help you file a claim and then charge you for it is breaking the law.
If you do need help filing your claim, for whatever reason, you should contact a veterans service organization for free help.
How To Choose A Lawyer
It’s important to find a lawyer who knows about VA claims and will represent your interests. Here are some questions to ask any attorney you're considering hiring.
- Are you VA-accredited?
- How long have you been practicing veterans law?
- When did you last attend a veterans law training?
- Will you represent me all the way through my appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and are you admitted to practice before them?
You can use the National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA) website for help in finding a lawyer. NOVA has an online directory of attorneys (and non-attorney agents) who have been accredited by the VA as well as many attorneys who are admitted to practice before the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals. NOVA attorneys are required to participate in annual veterans benefits training and are not listed in the online directory until they have been a NOVA member for one year.
Attorneys for Military Sexual Trauma Cases
It’s important for veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma to have an attorney who is sensitive to the issues involved and who is familiar with the obstacles survivors face in the VA benefits system. The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) provides referrals to male and female veterans who need an attorney who is familiar with military sexual trauma. Call the SWAN legal resource at 202-798-5570.
How Much Will A Lawyer Charge You?
How much a lawyer can charge for service varies, but attorneys are permitted by law to charge between 20% and 33% for handling an appeal. These fees will be paid to the attorney only if they win the appeal and you are awarded benefits or have your benefits increased. Typically these fees will be paid directly out of the any lump-sum payment you get from the VA.
For example, say you filed a disability claim on Jan. 1, 2016 but were denied. On Jan. 1, 2017 you hired a lawyer and signed a contract for a 20 percent contingency fee. On Jan. 1, 2018, the VA granted you a 100% disability rating retroactive to the original date of filing (Jan. 1, 2016). The retroactive amount is the 100% monthly payment for the period between Jan. 1, 2016, and Jan. 1, 2018 (two years), which is approximately $80,000.
The attorney’s fee would be 20% of the $80,000 or $16,000.
The lawyer only gets paid if they win your case. But, be sure to read your contract with the lawyer before signing it so you understand all the details. A lawyer on the up-and-up is no problem, others can rip you off.
Make sure you choose a lawyer who is VA accredited. First, that means they know what they are doing. Secondly, if the lawyer is VA accredited they most likely won't rip you off. Any lawyer who does business nationwide by representing veterans versus the VA isn't about to lose their accreditation by trying to rip off one veteran
Be Prepared To Communicate With The Lawyer
The first thing you need to know is that you probably won't find a lawyer who is local to you. Veterans law attorneys work at the federal level so as long as they are certified by VA to represent veterans, you can choose any lawyer.
You may never meet your lawyer face to face. They will do all the work for you by mail, email and on the phone.
When choosing a lawyer you should talk to at least 2 or 3 before you sign any contract. Choose someone who is prompt to respond to your questions and eager to discuss your case. If you are shuffled from one paralegal to the next and you aren't able to speak with the lawyer, move on to someone else.
Free Legal Help Is Always Available
If you are hesitant about paying out a lot of cash for a lawyer, you should know that free, or pro-bono, legal assistance is widely available to help veterans.
The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) provides free legal assistance to veterans appealing a denial of disability benefits to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program provides free representation to veterans who are appealing any case that was rejected by the Board of Veterans Appeals. This includes decisions denying disability benefits. Request help using their contact form or call them at (888) 838-7727 or (202) 628-8164.
The GI Hotline is a network of twenty veterans service groups that provides legal assistance with discharge upgrades (as well as other legal issues for veterans and active service members). Call them at (877) 447-4487.
Law School Clinics. Some law schools offer veterans free legal assistance from law students who are supervised by attorneys and/or paralegals. Check if a law school in your area has a free legal clinic for veterans.
Know All Your Legal Rights And Benefits
Be aware and get what you are entitled to. Keep up with all the legal benefits available to you as a service member, veteran, or spouse by signing up for a free Military.com membership, which will send all the latest information straight to your inbox, as well as give you access to up-to-date legal benefits and more.