How to Apply for VA Disability Benefits

Here's what you need to know about applying for veterans disability benefits and fast-tracking your claim.

By , Attorney Northeastern University School of Law
Updated 6/01/2023

Disability compensation benefits are available to veterans who suffer from a disease or injury that was caused by (or worsened by) their military service. If you're disabled because of your military service, you should apply for benefits as soon as you can. Even if it's been many years since you were on active duty, you're still eligible for VA disability benefits if you have a service-connected medical condition.

This article will discuss how to sign up for VA benefits, including tips on how to get your VA disability application approved and the best ways to speed up your claim.

How to Apply for Veterans Disability Benefits

To apply for VA disability benefits, you'll need to complete Form 21-526EZ, Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits. You can file the VA disability application in any of the following ways:

  • apply for VA disability online using the electronic version of Form 21-526
  • fax Form 21-526EZ to 844-531-7818 (from inside the United States) or 248-524-4260 (from outside the U.S.)
  • bring your application to your local VA office, or
  • download Form 21-526EZ, print it out, and mail it to this address:
    Department of Veterans Affairs
    Claims Intake Center
    PO Box 4444
    Janesville, WI 53547-4444.

When to Apply for VA Disability

Apply as soon as you know you're disabled to preserve the earliest possible effective date for your benefits. Submit your application even if you don't have all the required documentation ready. You can always submit additional documents later.

Even if you're still on active duty, you can file a claim for veterans disability benefits 90 to 180 days before you leave the military. Filing before your discharge date can help speed up the claims process so you can get your benefits sooner.

Learn more about how your application date can affect your VA disability benefits.

Listing Your Medical Conditions on Your VA Disability Application

As part of the application, you'll need to list the illnesses or injuries for which you're requesting disability compensation. Be very specific and provide the approximate date you began having symptoms for each condition.

Know that for every disability you list, the time it takes to process your claim increases. To help speed up your claim, list only those disabilities for which you suffer symptoms and/or have received a medical diagnosis.

Submitting Medical Records for Your VA Disability Application

If you have medical records that support your claim of disability, you can submit them along with your application. Submitting your private and VA medical records with your disability application—or immediately after—can speed up your claim. Learn how to get your VA medical records.

But don't worry if you don't have any or all of your medical records. The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) will request them on your behalf.

How to Get Your VA Disability Application Approved

To have a chance of getting the VA to approve your disability application, you'll need to prove the following three things:

  • you have a diagnosed medical condition
  • your medical condition is connected to your military service, and
  • your symptoms are ongoing (recurrent or persistent).

When applying for disability compensation, only include conditions that developed as the result of injuries or illness tied to your military service (or made worse by your military service). Tacking on an impairment unrelated to your military service will only delay your application.

You'll need solid medical evidence to prove your claim. Include medical records from military and VA health care providers and private doctors or hospitals where you've received treatment.

Ask your private doctor to complete the appropriate Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ) and submit it as soon as possible. And keep seeing your health care provider and attending any scheduled exams or treatment appointments you have.

Submitting all your supporting documents with your claim will also prevent delays. In addition to your medical records, send the VA copies (not originals) of the following:

  • your DD214 or separation documents
  • your marriage license (if married), and
  • your children's birth certificates (if you have dependent children)

Consider getting help with your application from an accredited representative. Accredited attorneys, claims agents, and Veterans Service Officers (VSOs) are trained professionals certified in the VA claims and appeals processes. You can find a VSO through one of the VA-recognized veterans organizations.

How Long Does It Take to Get VA Disability Benefits?

It can take anywhere from a few months to three or more years for the Veterans Administration to process your initial application for benefits and for you to receive a decision. But there are some things you can do to speed up the VA disability application process.

Use the VA's "Fast Track" Disability Claim System

You can reduce your wait time by using the VA's "Fast Track" or "fully developed claim" (FDC) program. This program allows you to speed up the processing of your claim by submitting all your medical records with your application.

Submitting your records with your application saves time because the VA doesn't have to take the time to collect them. You have up to a year to submit everything, but submitting all medical evidence as soon as possible helps prevent unnecessary delays.

Even if you don't submit all the medical evidence yourself, you're generally still eligible for Fast Track if you've claimed only one or two disabilities. Learn more about submitting a Fast Track VA disability claim.

Do You Qualify for Special Fast Track Status?

All veterans can take advantage of the FDC program, but some veterans are entitled to priority claims processing, including the following:

  • veterans who are homeless or in dire financial need
  • former POWs
  • veterans who suffered military sexual trauma, and
  • veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you're a Vietnam veteran filing a disability claim based on exposure to Agent Orange, you can use the VA's Agent Orange Fast Track Claims Processing System.

Does My VA Office Use Fast Track?

Fast Track is available in most VA offices. Check with your local VA office to see if it's using the FDC program.

What If I Have a New Medical Condition After Filing My VA Disability Application?

What if, after submitting your application, you realize that you forgot to list an illness or injury? Or what if you develop a new disability related to your service after applying for VA benefits? You can amend your application to include the omitted or new medical condition.

To amend your VA disability application, you'll need to complete and submit a Statement in Support of Claim (Form VBA-21-4138), which can be found on the VA Forms Website. You also have the option to submit the statement using the VA's online tool.

What If the VA Denies My Disability Benefits?

If the VA denies your disability claim, you can appeal the denial by filing a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) with the VA office that issued the denial. You can find the NOD form on the VA Forms Website.

Learn more about how to appeal a denied VA disability claim.

Can Disabled Veterans Get Social Security Benefits?

Don't forget that in addition to veterans disability benefits, you can apply for Social Security benefits if you're disabled. And you can receive both veterans disability benefits and Social Security disability benefits at the same time, if you get approved.

There's a different application process for Social Security. And while the Social Security process can take months or even more than a year, it's usually much faster to get Social Security benefits than benefits through the VA.

Learn more about applying for Social Security as a disabled veteran.

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