After you've applied for disability benefits, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has determined your disability is service-connected, the next step is for the VA to assign a rating to your disability.
The VA disability rating reflects the severity of your disability and is intended to reflect how much the impairment impacts your ability to work. Your VA rating is also used to set the amount of your disability compensation, so that you're compensated for your loss in earning capacity as a result of your service to the country.
The VA assigns disability percentages by condition and severity. Generally, less severe disabilities receive lower disability percentage ratings and more severe disabilities receive higher ratings.
The VA has developed a Schedule of Rating Disabilities (VARSD) they use to give a percentage rating to each disability. The ratings in the schedule are based on the average impact on earning capacity that each disability has in civilian occupations. VA ratings range from 0% to 100% in 10% increments.
The VA Schedule of Rating Disabilities breaks down disabilities into different categories based on the part of the body impacted. Each category (for example, Digestive Systems) contains groups of medical issues. Each group of issues (such as ulcers) then contains a list of diagnoses, and each diagnosis (for instance, duodenal ulcer) has its own diagnostic code. Each diagnostic code specifies symptoms that are required for various ratings of disability.
For example, under the Digestive System category, there are four groups:
Under ulcers, the schedule has three diagnoses with diagnostic codes:
Under the diagnostic code for duodenal ulcers, four different percentage ratings are described:
At each level of severity, the rating schedule then lists the symptoms you must suffer to qualify for the associated rating. For example, for a severe rating of 60% for an ulcer, you must have symptoms including periodic vomiting and only partial relief from ulcer therapy.
To rate your disability, the VA will start at the body system category, locate your diagnosis, and then find the diagnostic code that best matches your symptoms. The VA is required to carefully review the medical evidence in your file when assigning a rating.
Even if one disability could satisfy more than one diagnostic code, you can only get rated (and paid) under one code. Where two or more codes apply, the VA must choose the diagnostic code that will give the highest rating.
Sometimes the VA doesn't apply the rating criteria correctly. Other times, you may feel your disability is more severe than the VA says it is, the VA has actually correctly rated it under the criteria in the Schedule of Rating Disabilities.
If your disability isn't listed in the Schedule of Rating Disabilities, the VA will look for a disability that's close to the one you have and then evaluate your disability based on the diagnostic code for the related disability.
A 0% rating doesn't pay any disability compensation, but is still important because it may qualify you for priority health care and other VA benefits.
The monthly payment for VA ratings of 10% and higher will vary based on whether the veteran has any dependents, and if so, how many.
For example, if you're a single veteran with no dependents, in 2023, you'll receive a monthly benefit of:
If you're married with one dependent child, in 2023, your monthly payment rate will be:
If you have multiple ratings (because you have multiple disabilities), the VA doesn't simply add them together to create your final rating. What the VA does is combine your ratings according to a formula.
To apply this formula, the VA uses a Combined Ratings Table. The combined rating is then rounded up or down to the nearest whole number. In no case will you receive a rating that's higher than 100%.
For example, say you have one disability rated at 40% and another rated at 60%. Again, you might think this entitles you to a 100% rating, but it doesn't. You can use the Combined Ratings Table to see what your combined rating would be. Go across the table to where you find the 40, then scroll down until you see the number 60 in the left-hand column. There you'll find the number 76, which would be rounded up to the nearest increment of 10, which is 80. Your combined disability rating would be 80%.
The VA is required to evaluate each of your service-connected disabilities independently and assign a rating to each. But you might have both service-connected and non-service-connected disabilities, in which case it might be difficult to determine which condition is causing your symptoms.
In that case, the VA is required to apply the "benefit of the doubt" rule. The benefit of the doubt rule means that when the VA can't tell which disability is causing your symptoms, they have to assume that your service-connected disability is causing them (not your non-service-connected disability). This can help you to get a higher rating.
You can ask the VA to assign you different ratings for different periods of time while your application was pending. This is called "staged ratings." You can ask the VA to look at the medical evidence and assign you a higher rating for the period during which your symptoms worsened and met the criteria for a diagnostic code with a higher rating.
Staged ratings can help you get a higher retroactive benefit payment when it's taken years for your claim to get awarded. (But if your disability improved, then the VA will also assign a lower rating for the period when your symptoms were lighter.)
Veterans disability ratings can get quite complicated. Some injuries have more complex rating processes; for example, traumatic brain injuries and muscle injuries. Similarly, the rating process for injuries that predated but were worsened by military service (called aggravated preexisting injuries) is a bit different than for first-time injuries.
In addition, other types of disability compensation are sometimes available to veterans, including:
We'll discuss some of these special disability ratings and the differences in how certain disabilities are rated.
When rating the impact of traumatic brain injury (TBI), the VA evaluates the current impact on the veteran, not the severity of the original injury.
A TBI rating may be assigned for:
Also, the VA has developed some special rules for approving brain injuries.
The percentage ratings for psychiatric conditions are 0%, 10%, 30%, 50%, 70%, or 100%, depending on the symptoms and limitations of the condition. The VA sets out specific guidelines for each rating percentage, which you can read about in Nolo's article on how the VA rates service-connected mental illnesses.
The VA is required to rate a muscle injury on the basis of each muscle function that has been impaired. Under the Schedule for Rating Disabilities, traumatic muscle injuries are evaluated under the musculoskeletal section as one of the following:
If more than one muscle, nerve, or joint function is impacted, a veteran can potentially receive more than one rating for conditions stemming from a single injury. However, complex rules govern when more than one condition resulting from a muscle injury can receive an independent rating. In this case, it can be worthwhile to enlist the help of a veterans disability attorney for assistance.
Disabilities a veteran had prior to entering military service that are found to be service-connected are rated according to the Schedule of Rating Disabilities. But these disabilities aren't typically rated at the severity level of the actual disability. Rather, they're rated based on how much the military service worsened the condition.
For example, if a disability is found to have been 20% disabling at entry into service and an incident in service worsened the disability so that it's now 50% disabling, the VA will assign a 30% rating.
In addition to disability compensation, veterans can receive an additional monthly benefit called "special monthly compensation"—for certain severe disabilities. The VA rules are complex, but the types of eligible disabilities include:
Combinations of the above types of disabilities will result in a higher special monthly compensation rates.
Veterans can be eligible for a temporary 100% disability rating for service-connected disabilities during:
Veterans who can't do a significant amount of work may be eligible for a 100% disability rating based on "unemployability," even though they wouldn't be rated 100% disabled under the Schedule for Rating Disabilities. The VA calls this "Total Disability for Individual Unemployability" (TDIU).
The TDIU rating takes into account the impact of disabilities on the veteran's ability to work. The TDIU rating is more subjective than the standard VA ratings, which are based on the impact of a disability on the average person's ability to work.
To be awarded Total Disability for Individual Unemployability, veterans must show that they're unable to engage in a "substantially gainful occupation." Generally, this means an occupation with an annual income that's above the federal poverty rate. And the inability to work at a gainful occupation must be linked to a service-connected disability that's rated at 60% or higher. (Or, if the veteran has more than one disability, at least one of the disabilities must be rated at 40% and the combined rating must be 70% or more.)
Veterans can apply for TDIU using VA Application for Increased Compensation Based on Unemployability.