Benefits for Disabled Veterans' Spouses and Children

By , Attorney Northeastern University School of Law

Health care and educational benefits are available to spouses and children of veterans who meet the definition of "totally and permanently disabled."

What Is Permanent and Total Disability?

To count as permanent and total disability, a veteran must have a disability that is service-connected, rated 100% (based on either the Schedule for Rating Disabilities or TDIU), and considered permanent.

100% Service-Connected Disability Compensation Rating

A veteran is considered totally and permanently disabled if they have received a disability rating of 100% for service-connected disability compensation and the VA does not expect the condition to improve. It's pretty easy to figure out if the veteran has a 100% rating, you'll find this rating on much of the paperwork received from the VA, including the original letter granting benefits. But how do you know if the VA expects the condition to be unchanging and therefore considers the disability permanent?

Take a look at the decision letter the VA sent to the veteran when granting benefits. Look for language like "Eligibility to dependents Chapter 35 DEA / CHAMPVA are established" or "No future exams are scheduled," or similar language. Such language indicates that the rating of total disability is permanent. The exact language used may vary with different VA regional offices.

If, however, the letter says "future exams are scheduled," then the 100% total disability rating is temporary and will be subject to possible reduction after a future medical reexamination.

Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU)

If you are rated 100% disabled based on Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU), your rating may be temporary or permanent. Even if your award letter says future exams aren't scheduled, the VA can choose to bring you in for reexamination at any time if your TDIU is considered temporary. You will need to write to the VA (see below) to request that your disability be deemed permanent.

Make sure you submit an Employment Questionnaire to your VA Regional Office every year to maintain your TDIU status. Mail it around the time of year that you got your award letter. Send one in whether you receive a reminder from the VA or not, as not all offices will send you the questionnaire or remind you that you are required to submit it. If you do not submit it, you may get your rating reduced.

Asking the VA to Make Your Rating Permanent

If you don't see any pertinent language in the decision letter and you're really not sure if the VA considers your disability permanent, do not call them and tell them you want to know if it is permanent. For example, you might ask them if it's permanent because you need help paying for your child to go to college. But decisions to make a rating permanent are not made based on your financial need.

Instead, write a letter to your VA Regional Office and request a permanent rating. Provide medical evidence to the VA showing that your medical condition cannot be expected to improve in the future.

Health Care Benefits

CHAMPVA, which stands for Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is the VA's health care benefit for eligible spouses and children of permanently disabled veterans.

Spouses. A husband or wife of a disabled veteran is eligible for CHAMPVA as long as the couple remains married.

Children. Children are eligible for CHAMPVA until they turn age 18, or until age 23 if they are in school full-time, as long as they remain unmarried and, for step-children, living in the veteran's home.

Adult children. Some children over age 18 or 23 remain eligible if they meet "helpless children" requirements. A "helpless child" is basically a special needs child who, before reaching the age of 18, becomes permanently incapable of supporting themselves. The determination of whether a child is "helpless" will be made by your VA Regional Office. For assistance, phone 800-827-1000.

You can read about the application process on the VA website, and the CHAMPVA Handbook describes the program in more detail.

Educational Benefits

The VA's Dependents' Educational Assistance program provides up to three years and nine months worth of benefits for spouses and children of permanently disabled veterans who are disabled due to service-connected disabilities.

What Benefits Can Be Used For

The educational benefits can be used by spouses or children to pursue a degree or certificate or for work training programs or an apprenticeship. In addition, spouses (not children) can be reimbursed for the cost of correspondence courses.

Who Is Eligible and Time Periods

Children and spouses of veterans who are totally and permanently disabled are eligible for Dependents' Educational Assistance. Spouses can generally use these benefits for 10 years from the date the VA deems them eligible. In some cases, spouses can use the benefits for 20 years. This happens when the veteran was rated permanently and totally disabled within three years after discharge from the service, and the 20-year-period begins running on the date the veteran received the disability rating.

Children are eligible for the benefits from the Dependents' Educational Assistance program between 18 and 26 years old. Sometimes eligibility can begin before age 18 and continue past age 26. Children remain eligible for Dependents' Educational Assistance even after they marry.

Children who are active service members in the military are not eligible to receive this benefit while on active duty. Once discharged, benefits are available as long as the discharge is not under dishonorable conditions. The period of eligibility for Educational Assistance will be extended by the amount of time spent on active duty, but this extension will usually not go beyond a child's 31st birthday.

How to Apply For Educational Benefits

Check with the VA before you begin your program to make sure that your educational program is approved and eligible for reimbursement. Call the VA Regional Office in the state where you will be attending your program.

Complete the Dependents' Application for VA Education Benefits and submit it to the VA Regional Office in the state where you plan to attend school or training. If you are already in school, you will also have to ask the school or job (if you are having work training) to complete and an Enrollment Certification form. Submit the Enrollment Certification along with your application.

Educational and Vocational Counseling

Family members eligible for educational benefits can also receive free vocational and educational counselingthrough the VA. This can help you decide which training program you would like to pursue.

An additional educational program to consider is the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship.

Survivor Benefits

The health care and educational benefits describe above may also be available for surviving spouses and children of deceased veterans. In addition, survivors may be eligible for cash survivor benefits from the VA.

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