Appealing Your Case To The Veteran’s Administration
You’ve served our country, done everything asked of you and more, and now you’ve come home. Unfortunately, like too many of your comrades in arms, you’re suffering from a disability because of your time in service. So now, you’ve followed all the steps for filing your disability claim with the VA. After waiting for their response, you finally get a response. But, it’s a ratings decision that values your disability lower than you think it should be. Or, it’s a rating decision that grants you some of what you are due and denies you other parts of your claim. Or, it denies your claim entirely.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this happens all too often. The good news, though, is that it’s not the end of the road. There is a process by which you can appeal the VA’s determination.
As a veteran, you know the government loves its abbreviations and acronyms. As attorneys representing veterans, we have to know what they mean. We at the Law Offices of Maurice L. Abarr can help you get through all of the confusion of the VA’s abbreviations and acronyms.
The first step is to file a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) with the VA. It’s just what it sounds like. It’s your way of letting the VA know that you received their determination but you think they got it wrong. More importantly, it preserves your right to appeal all of the errors in the VA’s decision to deny you benefits.
There are some key points to know about filing an NOD. Perhaps the most important of these is the timing. You have a one-year deadline to file your NOD. That’s one year from the date on the cover letter that accompanies the decision you want to appeal–not one year from when you received it. Frequently the VA sends its decision with a cover letter and the cover letter is dated later than the decision. The date of the cover letter is what controls the process.
IMPORTANT: While one year may seem like a lot of time, this is a deadline you don’t want to miss; if you don’t file your NOD in time, the VA’s determination is considered final.
VA Form 21-0958 and VA Form 21-4138
The VA has a new form–the VA Form 21-0958 Notice of Disagreement–for filing your NOD. It’s important to note that the use of this form to file your NOD is not mandatory. You can use the much simpler VA Form 21-4138 Statement in Support of Claim or even write a plain letter to the VA.
If you’ve received a determination from the VA, you’ll probably have a copy of this new VA Form 21-0958 and you can see the level of detail it requires. So why would you use such a complicated form that’s not mandatory when a much simpler approach exists? According to the VA, the primary benefit of using this form is that it will expedite the processing of your appeal. The specific issues of your appeal are brought to the VA sooner and more clearly and it helps jump start the process. It’s our contention that you want to make things as easy as possible for the VA to say, “Yes,” to your appeal. On the other hand, there is a potential risk in how you fill out the 21-0958 form. It asks for specific reasons for your disagreement. If, however, you don’t include certain information or raise certain objections, you may have trouble introducing them later.
Our recommendation is a question of timing–especially where you are up against that all-important one-year deadline. If you’ve just gotten your determination and the clock just started, then it makes sense to work through the 21-0958 form and take advantage of the benefits it can bring. It’s important that you don’t hurt your appeal before it has even started. Considering the potential pitfalls the form brings, it may be a good idea to get qualified legal assistance in filling out your 21-0958. If, however, you’re up against the one-year deadline, it probably makes more sense to use the simpler approach: the VA Form 21-4138 Statement in Support of Claim. If your situation lends itself to going with the 21-4138 or letter approach, then it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind.
There are two specific things you need to say:
1. That you disagree with the VA’s ratings decision and the date of that decision. (“I disagree with the VA’s decision of date .”)
2. That you say that you intend to appeal that decision. (“I want to appeal this decision.”) It is imperative that you include both of those statements.
You don’t need to get any more specific than that. In fact, too much specificity at this point may hurt your appeal later down the road.
Regardless of how you prepare your NOD, once you’ve completed it (and saved a copy for yourself), send it to the VA office that sent you the denial letter. We strongly recommend that you send it in a way that provides proof of delivery (e.g., certified mail with return receipt) so that you’ll have proof that you met the filing deadline. If you send by certified mail, return receipt requested, you will receive a green card confirming the date of receipt. Keep that card in a safe place. It may be very important later.
The VA will respond with a Statement of the Case (SOC); this is a summary of the decision and how they arrived at their determination. This will also include the very important VA Form 9, Appeal to Board of Veterans Appeals. Form 9 is much more complicated than a NOD and what is (and isn’t) included can be critical to your appeal. This form has a much shorter deadline–60 days–and is the time where you will be expected to get specific with your appeal.
Depending upon your particular situation, it may be advisable to seek qualified legal help. Whether it’s at the NOD stage and deciding which way to start the process or at the Form 9 stage, the last thing you want to do is make a small technical error that can hurt your appeal later down the road. And if you recently got discharged, make sure to check out our blog "The First Year After Discharge".