Every claim for service connection must prove three things:
The veteran suffered an injury or disease during his or her military service.
The veteran has a current diagnosis or symptoms of the claimed condition.
The in-service injury or disease at least as likely as not caused the current claimed condition.
Proving these three elements will increase your chances of getting a favorable decision the first time you file. Here are five tips for filing a well-supported claim.
1. Choose the Right Form
A few years ago, filing a claim with the VA was as easy as writing down what you wanted to claim on any old piece of paper and mailing it to VA. Since 2015, VA requires that veterans file claims on particular forms. Since 2019, VA has added a number of new forms, further complicating the process.
VA Form 21-526 is used if you are filing for service connection for a particular issue for the first time, or if you are claiming an increase more than one year after the most recent evaluation of a particular issue.
VA Form 20-0995 - Supplemental Claim is used if you are reopening a claim denied more than one year ago, or want to appeal a denial within one year of the last decision. This form always requires new and relevant evidence.
VA Form 20-0996 - Request for Higher Level Review is used if the issue was decided within the last year and you want a more experienced rater to consider the claim.
VA Form 10182 - Notice of Disagreement is used to appeal a decision to the Board of Veterans Appeals within one year of the last decision.
2. Provide a Statement Describing the Basis of the Claim
It is usually not enough to just fill out the correct form. A statement that describes why you believe the claimed condition is related to your military service is helpful to point the decision-maker in the right direction. Did the condition you are claiming start during your military service? Are you claiming the condition as secondary to another condition? Is your claim based on exposure to a particular toxin? Providing a statement describing the basis of your claim will help ensure the decision-maker addresses your contentions.
3. Provide Evidence of an In-Service Injury or Exposure
If evidence that your condition began during your military service exists, point it out. If you are claiming service connection based on exposure to Agent Orange, or Radiation, etc., explain how you were exposed. If you are claiming service connection for a condition and you don’t have evidence that the condition began in service, provide a detailed description of the symptoms you experienced in service and the reason why you were not treated for the condition. If you have friends or family members that knew you during your military service, they can also provide statements about the symptoms they witnessed. These statements are incredibly valuable.
4. Provide Evidence of a Current Diagnosis
Most of the time when a VA claim is filed, a veteran has been diagnosed with and treated for the claimed condition. If this is the case, provide treatment records showing the diagnosis and severity of the condition. Filing these records with your claim will cut down on the time it takes VA to process your claim. If you can’t get the records, tell VA where you were treated and when, and they will send you a release form to sign and will obtain the records on your behalf.
If you haven’t been diagnosed or treated for the condition, provide a statement detailing your symptoms.
5. Provide a Nexus Statement or Prepare for a VA Examination
If you have a doctor who has provided you with a statement relating your claimed condition to your military service, provide that to VA. If you do not, and you have shown some evidence of an in-service event or injury, and some evidence of a current disability, VA is obligated to obtain an exam and opinion.
Prepare for the VA examination in the same way you prepared to file the claim. Take time to consider when your symptoms began, how they have progressed over the years, and how they manifest at present. If your condition waxes and wanes, you should describe your symptoms on your worst day, and indicate how often those days happen.
Following these steps will help VA understand your claim. However, even well-supported claims can be denied. Working with an advocate who understands the VA claims process is crucial if VA has denied your claim. If you or a family member needs assistance appealing a VA claim, contact the legal experts at West & Dunn at 608-535-6420 or through our Contact Us page.