Attorney Joel Ban, a Utah lawyer who handles both Social Security disability and Veterans Disability claims recently posted a concise and informative article on his blog describing the similarities and differences between the two programs. Joel points out that a VA disability rating of 70% or higher can help your Social Security claim – this confirms my experience that Social Security judges will give weight to VA disability findings.
Joel was kind enough to give me permission to reprint his article in its entirety, which I have done below.
This article is an overview of the highlights of the major topics for Veterans who have both Veterans Disability claims as well as Social Security Disability claims. A lot of Veterans may have both Social Security and Veterans Disability Claims going on either at the same time or may have received one benefit before applying for the other. VA compensation, aka service connected disability is not based on income so you can definitely receive VA compensation and Social Security Disability (SSDI) at the same time. There is also VA pension which is a needs based program, very similar to Supplemental Security Income (SSI). VA pension will be paid to Veterans if they have very little or no income and are disabled based on non service disabilities. It is possible to receive SSI and VA pension at the same time. Based on your circumstances its best to qualify for both VA compensation and Social Security Disability since they generally are the more generous benefits, however its important to be aware of these other needs based programs.
Major Differences between the Programs
Major differences between Social Security Disability and Veterans Disability is that you don’t need a total disability in order to be eligible for VA compensation. In fact, most Veterans who receive VA compensation do not receive a total disability rating. Veterans can receive a compensable rating as low as the 10% level and can have a rating as low as 0%. In many cases it makes sense to go for a 0% rating even though its not compensable. The reason for this is that it will mean that the Veteran at least has a service connected disability that will likely deteriorate into a more serious problem and later morph into a compensable disability. Many Veterans have trouble proving service connection but with a 0% rating the Veteran will have already crossed this hurdle. Social Security Disability, conversely does not compensate claimants based on a partial loss of employability. You are either disabled or not disabled under this program.
Another major difference between the two programs is the treating physician rule. In Social Security law once it has been established that a claimant’s physician is a “treating physician” that medical professional’s opinion is given deference. This can be the difference between winning and losing a SSD claim. However, in VA law it can be difficult to get a treating physician to give a positive opinion, especially if the Doctor works for the VA, but even if they do the opinion is not given deferential weight since the VA may consider that physician biased and is not given any special weight. See White v. Principi, 243 F.3d 1378, 1380-81 (Fed. Cir. 2001). This case explained that the treating physician rule conflicts with an important VA principle that decisions be based on the entire file so as not to give any particular evidence extra weight.
Does getting benefits in one Program help get Benefits under the other?
So the question becomes does having one benefit make one’s case for the other any better? Overall, the answer is yes, but it depends. If you are the recipient of a very high VA rating (70% or higher) than your chances for success on your Social Security Disability claim are quite high. This is because another federal agency has already found that you are either incapable of work or you are at a level where full time work would be very difficult. One advantage many Veterans with high disability ratings is that while VA only considers service connected disabilities the SSA will consider all impairments whether they are service related or not.
Because of the similarity between a VA finding of unemployability and what it means to be disabled under the social security disability program, it is the rule in four circuits that such VA disability ratings are entitled to “great weight.” See McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072 (9th Cir. 2002); Chambliss v. Massanari, 269 F.3d 520, 522 (5th Cir. 2001); Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 921 (11th Cir. 1984); and De Loatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 n.1 (4th Cir. 1983). One circuit court has said that VA disability ratings were entitled to “substantial weight.” Kane v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 1130, 1135 (3d Cir. 1985). SSR 06-3p says that the decision and the evidence used to make the decision “may provide insight into the individual’s mental and physical impairment(s) and show the degree of disability determined by these agencies based on their rules.
Unfortunately, if you are disabled under SSA rules, the VA may not give this decision as much weight since its not usually clear whether this decision is based on service connected or non service disabilities. Most Veterans have a wide array of both types of disabilities and so the VA will be quick to attribute total disability to a host of non service disabilities. They usually are required to make specific findings on what disabilities prevent employability. In this case it may become important for a Veteran to hire a Vocational Expert to support their total disability claim so they can specifically attribute unemployability to service related disabilities. However, it is definitely recommended that the VA be provided with the entire SSD file and decision even though the VA has a duty to request it since this could provide key evidence for your VA claim. Brown v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 444, 448 (1992); Murincsak v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 363, 370-72 (1992); see also Beaty v. Brown, 6 Vet. App. 532, 538 (1994).
Other Important Things to Know
In the Veterans Disability program although as mentioned above a Social Security Disability decision is given no special deference the VA will be required to consider SSD records. Under 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(c) the VA lists the Social Security Administration as one of the agencies from which they are required to obtain relevant records. See Hayes v. Brown, 9 Vet. App. 67, 73-74 (1996) (“As part of the Secretary’s obligation to review a thorough and complete record, VA is required to obtain evidence from the Social Security Administration, including any decisions by the administrative law judge, and give that evidence appropriate consideration and weight;” citing Murincsak v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 363, 372 (1992). The SSD file is especially critical in VA claims for total disability for individual unemployability. Since both situations require consideration of whether the claimant or Veteran can work the SSD file is especially relevant. Under the VA Duty to Assist the VA will have violated that duty when they fail to request the SSD file. Quartuccio v. Principi, 16 Vet. App. 183 (2002) (VA violated the duty to assist by failing to obtain Social Security records when it had actual notice that vet was receiving Social Security benefits).
A Social Security claims for survivor benefits based on the death of a Veteran also constitutes a VA claim for death benefits. They are said to be received by the VA at the same time they are received by the SSA.
Jonathan Ginsberg represents Social Security disability claimants in Georgia. In practice for over 29 years, Jonathan publishes a widely known disability blog, a podcast and several disability web sites. In 2004, Jonathan published a "how to" book about Social Security disability called the Disability Answer Guide. Jonathan lives with his wife and 2 children in Atlanta.