Whether to use a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) representative when filing a claim is one of the biggest decisions a veteran can make.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and picking the wrong pathway can cost you. Use of the word “claim” in the title also refers to appeals, and we will differentiate how each should be approached when considering who to hire.
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This article aims to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of what a VSO is, what a VSO is not, and whether using a VSO is the right choice for your VA claim.
What is a Veterans Service Organization (VSO)?
A Veterans Service Organization (VSO) is a non-profit entity that provides support and assistance to veterans in their VA claims. VSOs are accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs to represent veterans. The organizations are usually staffed by veterans familiar with VA claims and policies. VSOs offer guidance, advocacy, and help with filing claims and appeals.
The most common VSOs, like Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and American Legion (Legion), are the best known. These organizations are chartered by Congress to assist veterans with their claims and appeals.
Individuals who work for these organizations to directly assist veterans with claims and appeals are usually accredited through their organization. This means the individuals helping are accredited so long as they continue to work for the organization.
Conversely, VA-accredited attorneys and accredited claims agents are independently accredited by the agency. This means they had to apply on their own to receive accreditation.
The acronym VSO is also commonly used interchangeably to reference Veteran Service Officer, who are individuals who work for veteran organizations with the same VSO acronym.
I know it’s confusing, right?
So, a VSO who works for a VSO is a trained person, usually with some college, who is a veteran with claims training. DAV trains its VSOs for 18 months in an internal program. VFW and Legion rely on private training from a large law firm for their VSOs.
These individuals are accredited through their respective VSO employers.
How do VSOs assist veterans?
VSOs offer a range of services from answering general questions about claims to prosecuting a specific claim at the agency on behalf of a veteran or loved one. The organizations can provide insights into the specific requirements for different types of claims, potentially saving you time and frustration, at no cost to the veteran.
What Is A VA-Accredited Attorney?
A VA-accredited attorney is normally a person who completed up to 7 years of college and licensure to become a licensed attorney in a particular state. There are certain exceptions I won’t get into here.
Training for most attorneys includes completion of a bachelor’s degree with good grades. After graduation, you need to score well on a 5-hour high-stakes test called the LSAT. You then apply to a host of law schools, hoping to get in.
Once admitted to law school, you study and take tests where your entire grade for each course is based on your performance on one test at the end of the semester. You do this for three years. Once you graduate, you study for the State Bar. Depending on the state, the Bar is a test that lasts for 8 hours each day for 2-3 days after you pass a rigorous background check.
If you pass, you get licensed in that state. Once licensed, you can apply to become VA-accredited, meaning you agree to follow VA’s rules and take VA-related legal education on a regular basis to stay current on VA laws and requirements.
How Do VA-Accredited Attorneys Assist Veterans?
Most but not all VA-accredited attorneys help veterans contesting bad initial decisions on VA disability compensation. This is commonly referred to as appeals. Because of how Congress and VA structured limitations on hiring, most VA-accredited attorneys do not get involved in a VA claim matter unless the veteran is contesting an earlier decision.
From there, these attorneys will work on appeals at the Regional Office, Board of Veterans Appeals, and various courts that have jurisdiction over VA matters. These include the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and US Supreme Court.
One difference between the work a VSO might do and that of an attorney is working with experts. In some cases, especially whenever VA gets a shoddy expert opinion from one of its contracted examiners, an attorney will seek to dispute that with an expert opinion of their own.
Many VSOs are either too busy or lack the legal sophistication to work with experts.
Other differences include an added layer of independence from the Department of Veterans Affairs that most VSOs do not enjoy.
You may have noticed VSOs receive free rent, email, and phone services from VA as they reside in the same building as the Regional Office.
As a chartered VSO, your local VSO will usually lack the level of independence as an attorney because they have a dual fiduciary duty to the agency and to the veteran.
Meanwhile, an attorney’s sole responsibility for confidentiality and duty is to the veteran client. This manifests itself in the attorney’s ability to challenge laws and regulations in a way most if not all VSOs cannot.
Many of the favorable laws developed over the past thirty years that have helped veterans get a fairer shake from VA on a claim are the result of litigation against the agency by an attorney, not a VSO.
While an attorney is certainly paid, there are many veterans out there who would say the pay is frequently worth it, at least for those veterans who ran into a brick wall over and over through the help of a VSO unable to get the outcome the veteran deserved.
That is not to say VSOs do not do a great job in many instances. They do, and there is a huge need for even more VSOs than we have today. However, a VSO is not an attorney. Both are necessary in this maze we call VA benefits.
Is It A Claim Or An Appeal Of A Denied Claim, And Who Is In Charge Of What?
Let’s get this part out of the way.
In this article, we are talking about the most common scenario where a veteran wants to file a claim for disability compensation benefits, or appeal a denied claim for disability compensation benefits, to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
This is a federal agency. This should not be confused with state agencies helping veterans with state benefits or some state agencies that represent veterans before the federal VA for federal claims matters.
Think of it this way. At the end of the day, the federal VA is the boss most of the time.
Veterans Benefits by US Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans benefits programs administered by VA are governed by Title 38 of the US Code and corresponding federal regulations regulating representation before the agency.
There exists a lot of confusion about this within various states and groups, so I want to be very clear as to what we are talking about, here.
We are talking about federal benefits, not state benefits. These are not the same.
Examples of federal veterans benefits include, but are not limited to, the following list:
- Disability Compensation: A monthly tax-free benefit for veterans who have disabilities, diseases, or injuries acquired or aggravated during active military service.
- Pension: Veterans with limited income who are permanently and totally disabled, or are age 65 and older, may be eligible for a monetary support.
- Education and Training: The GI Bill and other programs help cover the costs of training, education, or vocational courses.
- Health Care: Comprehensive health services, including outpatient, inpatient, and preventive care. This includes specialty care like mental health, prosthetics, dental, and more.
- Home Loans: Helps veterans purchase, refinance, or adapt a home. Guarantees a portion of the loan to protect lenders and make rates more affordable for veterans.
- Life Insurance: A variety of insurance options for veterans and their families.
- Burial and Memorial: Benefits include burial at a VA national cemetery, markers, headstones, and Presidential Memorial Certificates.
- Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment (VR&E): Services to help veterans with disabilities get ready for, find, and keep suitable jobs.
- Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA): Education and training opportunities to eligible dependents of veterans.
Not all federal veterans benefits are administered by VA, either. Agencies like the Department of Labor also have certain federal benefits for veterans.
State Veterans Benefits Examples
Most, if not all, states administer veterans benefits programs that are dependent on how the federal VA adjudicates matters impacting federal benefits, like the GI Bill. Some states provide property tax deductions to certain qualified veterans. Other states provide tuition programs.
For example, in Wisconsin, veterans with 100% disability ratings from VA are eligible for a property tax deduction or waiver. Family members of those veterans may also be eligible for tuition waivers up to 48 months from a state university or college.
Examples of Minnesota state veterans benefits, where I live, include:
- Minnesota GI Bill for veterans who served honorably
- Free state park vehicle pass
- Free hunting and fishing license for 100% rated veterans
- Disabled veterans’ property tax exemption
Who Is In Charge?
It is widely understood that Congress granted the federal VA the sole authority to regulate the representation of veterans before the federal agency. This means, that through federal preemption, no state or other entity can regulate the representation of veterans for federal benefits in VA matters.
The focus of this article is not on claims before any state, even though federal Regional Office locations are within each state. These offices fall under federal jurisdiction, as do the claims matters being adjudicated within their walls.
The regulations regulate when a veteran can and cannot hire a VA-accredited attorney for a claim. Generally, a veteran cannot hire any attorney for pay unless VA already issued a decision on the matter. Period.
That means for initial VA disability claims, a veteran is precluded from hiring an attorney. They can only select a VSO.
IT’S FREE: VSOs Are Free To The Veteran
VSOs are mandated to provide claims assistance and representation to veterans for free.
This means that you will never be charged for the services provided that result in an award of backpay. There are a lot of different benefits that require a ton of claims work where most veterans could never afford the legal help, nor would the legal help be warranted.
So, VSOs provide an invaluable service to the veterans community, and they are compensated for that not by the veteran, directly, but through taxpayer dollars, membership fees, and donations.
Chartered VSOs are paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs, taxpayers, and member donations to support their operations. In some states, County Veteran Services Officers (CVSOs) are employed by the county.
Chartered national VSOs generally receive free office space from the VA at its Regional Office locations and medical centers. Their respective state offices frequently get office space without charge from their respective state government.
Here in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and numerous state-level VSOs operate in the Veteran Service Building at the Capitol in St. Paul.
There are a host of ways the VSO community is supported, and this article is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of that system.
NOT FREE: Attorneys Work For Money
Meanwhile, attorneys work for pay from the client.
Veterans regularly hire attorneys for divorces, business matters, property purchases, and more. These attorneys work for a fee from the person who hires them. The same is true when a veteran elects to hire an attorney for representation in a VA benefits claim.
For VA matters, generally for work disputing bad initial decisions, the pay arrangements can be a fixed fee, hourly fee, contingent fee, or a combination of those.
The attorney fee must be considered reasonable.
Congress and VA provide some guidance on what they mean for disability compensation claims where the attorney charges a contingent fee of a portion of the backpay awarded.
VA presumes all fees up to 20% of the disability backpay awarded to be reasonable. This means there should be little question arising from the agency to contest the fee amount.
VA presumes all fees greater than 33 1/3% of the disability backpay to be unreasonable. This means an attorney charging a fee greater than this rate may be deemed unreasonable, but it may not necessarily be unreasonable.
Instances where an attorney may charge more than 33 1/3% would likely need to be supported with additional rationale. For example, instances where a law firm is representing a risky case may warrant a higher fee.
A risky case could be a case where the odds of a successful outcome are low, but the law firm elects to represent the veteran anyway. And, the veteran chooses to contract with the law firm at the rate of compensation negotiated.
In America, veterans and other Americans have a right to contract with whomever they choose. There are some additional regulations governing professions like attorneys.
Our Constitution’s Contract Clause in Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 provides, “No State shall… pass any… Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”
What Is The Claim’s Status?
Is it an initial claim? Is it an appeal of a denied claim?
Is the claim being appealed? If it is appealed, what is the type of appeal, and where was it filed?
These questions matter because they will inform what options a veteran may have when deciding whether to select an attorney or VSO. Whether you are dealing with a claim or an appeal of a denied claim will present different options for who you can hire or select to help you.
A VSO who is not also an attorney is limited in the scope of their representation because they are not licensed attorneys able to practice. Most VSOs represent veterans in claims and appeals before the agency with some variance.
For example, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) employs national service officers (NSOs) and others who are trained and accredited to provide representation in claims and appeals.
I am using the term “appeals” loosely here to mean a disputed claim. A veteran can dispute any claim decision they disagree with in a Higher-Level Review (HLR), Supplemental Claim (SC), or Formal Appeal (FA).
A SC or HLR is decided at the Regional Office level. An FA is decided by the Board of Veterans Appeals.
Formal Appeals denied by the Board can be appealed to the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). DAV works with a law firm named Chisolm Chisolm & Kilpatrick to provide representation to veterans at CAVC. VFW and Legion employ a different law firm for the representation of some claims at CAVC.
Representation by VSOs generally stops once an appeal leaves the agency to be adjudicated by the courts above CAVC. If denied at CAVC, a veteran can also appeal the denied claim to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and then to the US Supreme Court.
Since VSOs are not licensed to practice law, and, therefore not admitted to any court to provide representation directly, VSOs are generally precluded from providing representation in benefits claims appeals that are litigated at any court without an admitted attorney.
There is an exception in the limited instances where the VSO has teamed up with a law firm to provide free representation services at CAVC, such as is the case for DAV, VFW, and Legion.
Advantages of Using a VSO for Your VA Claim
There are many types of claims a veteran could file where there is no other legal option representation at the agency other than to use a VSO. For example, submitting a claim for a dependent or an initial claim for disability compensation benefits.
That aside, assuming you do have an option, such as filing a Higher-Level Review, here are some pros and cons to consider when deciding who to pick. Obviously, an attorney will charge a fee, while a VSO will not. We do not address the fee below, only the skill and training.
Expertise in the VA System
VSOs are well-versed in the nuances of the VA system. They understand the language, procedures, and requirements that can be confusing to veterans unfamiliar with the process. By leveraging their organizational expertise, you can increase the likelihood of your claim’s success.
Before VA moved to a national work model, less than 10 years ago, VSOs had a more distinct advantage over attorneys in many instances because the decisions were being made in the same building. Many VSOs could develop working relationships with Decision Review Officers, for example, where the DRO may share additional information not otherwise available as to why a particular claim is being held up or denied. Now, VSOs are more limited because local officials do not frequently adjudicate local matters.
Navigating the VA system can be intimidating, especially when dealing with personal medical and service records. VSOs provide personalized assistance (unless you cannot reach them), walking you through each step of the process, ensuring your paperwork is complete and accurate.
Navigating Red Tape
The bureaucracy surrounding VA claims can lead to frustration and delays. VSOs are experienced in handling administrative delays, sometimes minimizing the chances of your claim getting caught in bureaucratic red tape.
Disadvantages of Using a VSO
Limited Legal Training
Veterans with more complicated appeals may want a second opinion from a VA-accredited attorney before deciding on a strategy.
Most representatives working for VSOs have some degree of initial training with regular annual training prior to taking the short agency test for non-attorneys representing veterans. Passage of the general knowledge test is required.
Most attorneys who become VA-accredited previously completed a Bachelor’s Degree over four years, a Juris Doctor degree over three years, and then passed a 2-3 day licensing examination. Once gaining licensure, the attorney can become VA-accredited without needing to take the short agency exam.
Representation by a VSO representative is likely sufficient for most claims and straightforward appeals a veteran will deal with. A veteran may want to consider speaking with an attorney for more complicated appeals involving conditions like traumatic brain injury, cancer, etc.
Both a VSO representative and a VA-accredited attorney can prosecute an appeal at the agency.
While there is a perception that VSOs can help expedite an appeals process, there is a possibility that such an appeal can be delayed, too.
VSO representatives are generally required to follow the procedures set out by the agency and their own organizations. Sometimes, these procedures require waiting longer for an appeal to start processing than an attorney might wait before contacting the agency to speed up the process.
VSO representatives tend to follow the rules. Attorneys can challenge the rules to the benefit of their clients whenever the agency’s rules contradict the law.
Lack of Control
Entrusting your claim to a VSO means relinquishing a certain level of control. The same is true when you hire an attorney. Decisions about documentation, communication, and strategy might be made on your behalf, which may not align with your preferences.
Some VSO representatives have a reputation for not responding to emails or phone calls from clients due to being too busy or taking on too many clients. For veterans who hire an attorney, failing to respond to a client within a reasonable amount of time may result in an ethics complaint to the state licensing bar.
There tends to be less accountability for VSO representatives for failing to respond. The failure to respond could be, in large part, due to an enormous caseload that is impossible to timely manage.
How to Choose the Right VSO
Research and Reputation
When considering a VSO, conduct thorough research. This is true for any professional.
Not all VSO representatives are the same, and each Regional Office may have a group of VSO representatives who are better trained or more responsive than others.
Look for organizations with a strong track record of successful claims and positive testimonials from fellow veterans.
Communication and Accessibility
Effective communication is key. Choose a VSO that maintains open lines of communication and keeps you updated on the progress of your claim.
Experience with Your Type of Claim
Not all VSOs specialize in every type of claim. Opt for an organization familiar with your specific needs and circumstances.
Steps to Work with a VSO on Your VA Claim
Most VSO representatives operate on a walk-in basis, while others allow for scheduling appointments in advance. Check with your office to see which is preferred.
For those veterans interested in scheduling a consultation with an attorney for an appeal, check out a few veterans benefits attorneys with reputations for being tough with the agency.
Whether you go with a VSO representative or a VA-accredited attorney, it is important that you start by collecting as much evidence and documentation to support your claims as possible.
This will ensure your benefits claim is comprehensive and well-supported.
Filing Your Claim
With your documents in order, the VSO will assist you in properly filing your claim, optimizing your chances of approval.
Following Up and Appeals
If your claim is denied or requires further action, your VSO or attorney will guide you through the appeals process, providing expertise and support.
Alternatives to Using a VSO Or Attorney
Working Independently – Pro Se
Some individuals prefer to handle their claims on their own. This is commonly called pro se representation, meaning you represent yourself.
This approach allows for maximum control in some instances, but you will not have access to your electronic file, which is key to winning most appeals or claims.
It also requires a thorough understanding of the process, so veterans electing to represent themselves should complete an informal cost-benefit analysis to weigh the pros and cons related to the risk of an unfavorable outcome.
Utilizing Online Resources
Online tools and resources can aid you in understanding the VA claims process, helping you navigate without direct VSO assistance.
Some of the resources available are free such as blog posts, YouTube videos, online regulations, and policies. More comprehensive resources like the Veterans Benefits Manual from NVLSP (published by Lexis) costs over $250.
In closing, whether to use a VSO or Attorney for your VA claim is a significant choice.
Their expertise and support can be invaluable, streamlining a process that often feels overwhelming, especially for representatives who’ve worked in the field for a long time.
However, it’s crucial to weigh the advantages and disadvantages, considering your individual needs and preferences.
FAQ: Hiring a VA-Accredited Attorney vs. Using a Veteran Service Officer (VSO)
Q1: Who is a VA-accredited attorney?
A: A VA-accredited attorney is a lawyer who has been officially accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to represent veterans in their claims for VA benefits. This accreditation ensures that the attorney is knowledgeable about VA rules and regulations.
Q2: Who is a Veteran Service Officer (VSO)?
A: A Veteran Service Officer, or VSO, is an advocate who represents veterans and their dependents to ensure they receive the benefits they are entitled to. They typically work for non-profit organizations, like Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and have undergone specialized training to assist veterans in their claims process.
Q3: What is the main difference between the two?
A: The primary difference is that VA-accredited attorneys are licensed lawyers who can provide legal advice and representation, often for a fee, while VSOs typically provide assistance free of charge, but do not offer legal advice.
Q4: Can both help with the VA claims process?
A: Yes, both VA-accredited attorneys and VSOs can assist veterans with the VA claims process, from initial filing to appealing decisions.
Q5: Why might someone choose a VA-accredited attorney over a VSO?
A: Some veterans may choose a VA-accredited attorney because they believe their case is particularly complex or requires legal expertise. Others might opt for an attorney if they feel they need dedicated representation or if they’re seeking damages beyond what the VA offers.
Q6: Why might someone choose a VSO over a VA-accredited attorney?
A: VSOs typically offer their services for free, so many veterans choose them to save on costs. Additionally, VSOs, especially those from well-established organizations like DAV, have a deep understanding of the VA claims process and can provide substantial assistance without the expense of hiring an attorney.
Q7: If I start with a VSO, can I later switch to an attorney?
A: Yes. If you begin the process with a VSO and later decide you want legal representation, you can switch to a VA-accredited attorney.
Q8: Can I use both simultaneously?
A: A VSO will usually refuse to work with an attorney on the same matter, and the VA system generally does not allow POA split on the same benefit type.
Q9: How can I find a reputable VA-accredited attorney or VSO?
A: For VA-accredited attorneys, you can consult the VA’s Office of General Counsel website for a list of accredited practitioners. For VSOs, you can contact well-known organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, or the American Legion to connect with their designated representatives.
Q10: Are there any potential conflicts of interest with either option?
A: VA-accredited attorneys may charge fees, so it’s essential to understand their fee structure upfront. VSOs are generally neutral as they’re part of non-profit organizations committed to serving veterans. Always ensure you feel comfortable with your representative and that you believe they have your best interests in mind.
Remember, the most crucial factor is finding someone you trust and who can competently assist you with your claim. Whether you choose a VA-accredited attorney or a VSO, ensure they have the necessary expertise and a history of successful advocacy on behalf of veterans.