VA Pension for Retired Veterans

Veterans who are disabled or over 65 and have low income can get a pension and improved pension from the VA.

By , Attorney · Northeastern University School of Law

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides supplemental income for low-income wartime veterans in the form of Pension, Housebound, and Aid and Attendance benefits. The purpose of this article is to explain these benefit programs and help you determine if you are eligible for them.

The VA may award you a pension in two circumstances:

  • When you are disabled but ineligible for disability compensation, you can receive the Disability Pension.
  • When you are not disabled, but you are over age 65, you can receive the Basic Pension.

If the VA finds that you are not disabled for disability compensation purposes, the agency may still find you disabled for pension purposes. This is because for pension purposes the VA considers all of your disabilities, whether they are service-connected or not.

Many vets are unaware they even if they are not disabled, they still may be able to receive a VA pension upon turning age 65.

VA Improved Pensions

In addition, VA also offers two supplemental or improved pension programs: Housebound Benefits and Aid and Attendance (A&A). A&A pays a higher monthly rate than Housebound Benefits. These two benefits are "add-ons" to the pension; you are not eligible for either add-in benefit unless you first qualify for a pension.

  • Housebound Benefits. This benefit provides some supplemental income when you are substantially confined to your home.
  • Aid and Attendance (A&A). If you require assistance with at least some daily living activities, you may be eligible for this benefit.

    • Even if a family member is caring for you and you are not paying for an outside caregiver to come into your home, you can still be eligible for this cash benefit.
    • If your spouse is disabled and you are not, you may be eligible to receive A&A for your spouse.

Eligibility for Pensions

To be eligible for the pension, and to be considered for A&A or Housebound benefits, you must first:

  • meet the financial needs test (have assets and income under the asset and income limits)
  • have been discharged under other than dishonorable conditions
  • have 90 days of service, including at least one day of service during wartime, and
  • be totally and permanently disabled (or been deemed disabled by Social Security) or age 65 and over.

    • If you are age 65 or over, the VA will, for the purposes of awarding you a Basic Pension, assume that you are permanently and totally disabled.

Additional Eligibility Rules for A&A

Eligibility for A&A requires that a veteran:

  • meet one of the following medical criteria:
    • require assistance with some tasks of daily living (such as bathing or dressing)
    • be blind or nearly blind
    • live in a nursing home or assisted living facility due to physical and/or mental incapacity, or
    • be mentally or physically incapacitated such that regular assistance is required for you to be able to remain safe in your home (typically this will mean that you are bedridden).

Additional Eligibility Rules for Housebound Benefits

Housebound benefits also require that you be substantially and permanently confined to your home because of your disabilities. If you aren't confined to your home, you can show that you have one disability rated at 100% and another at 60% or more to qualify for Housebound Benefits.

If you are age 65 or older, even though you are presumed disabled, to get housebound benefits you still have to show that you are confined to your home or have a disability that is rated at 60% or higher.

In addition to the pension, you can receive Housebound Benefits or A&A, but not both.

What Is a Wartime Veteran?

The VA has designated certain periods of military activity as "wartime." Active duty during the following periods qualifies as wartime service.

  • World War I (April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918)
  • World War II (December 7, 1941 – December 31, 1946)
  • Korean conflict (June 27, 1950 – January 31, 1955)
  • Vietnam era (February 28, 1961 – May 7, 1975 if you served in Vietnam during that period, otherwise, August 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975), and
  • Gulf War (beginning August 2, 1990 and continuing to the present time).

Financial Requirements for Pension and Improved Pension

To be eligible for the pension, Aid and Attendance, or Housebound Benefits, you must also meet certain financial requirements. Generally, you must have less than $80,000 in assets (but the VA can lower this amount for older individuals). When calculating your assets, the VA does not count the value of your personal vehicle or the home you live in.

Some veterans transfer their assets to obtain eligibility, because then you can successfully apply for these benefits, as soon as the day after such a transfer. However, such a transfer can negatively affect your Medicaid eligibility, so it is critical to consult an elder law attorney before transferring any assets. (Even if you have VA health care benefits and are eligible for VA long-term care, you still may need your Medicaid benefits in addition to VA benefits. Nolo's article on Medicaid Basics provides additional information.)

In addition to the limit on your assets, your income must also be low. Your annual income must be less than the Maximum Annual Pension Rate (this varies depending on the type of improved pension). When calculating your income, the VA will not count welfare benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Likewise, the VA will deduct certain medical expenses from your total income to determine what the VA calls your "countable income."

The types of medical expenses the VA permits you to exclude from your income are:

  • premiums for Medicare, Medigap, or long-term care insurance
  • over-the-counter medications suggested by your doctor
  • in-home medical or nursing care costs, and
  • assisted living facility or nursing home costs.

How the VA Calculates Your Benefit

The VA determines your annual income and then deducts all of your unreimbursed medical expenses to determine your countable income, and then pays you the difference between your countable income and the Maximum Annual Pension Rate. It can be helpful to review the VA webpage that explains this pension benefit calculation process in detail and provides examples.

Health Care and Drug Benefits

If you are eligible for Improved Pension, the VA will also give you free medication as long as it is ordered by a VA physician. You will also have access to free VA hospital and outpatient care.

How to Apply

To apply, download VA Form 21-526EZ, call the VA at 800-827-1000 to request a claim form, or go to your regional VA office.

If you are age 70 or older, expedited processing is available to you, so make sure to request it. At a minimum, it will take four to nine months for your application to be processed. Sometimes nursing homes or assisted living facilities will accept delayed payment if they know you qualify for A&A and cannot otherwise afford care. They are aware that your award of benefits will be retroactive

For assistance obtaining benefits, contact National Association of Senior Veterans (NASV) for pro bono help determining your eligibility for benefits. Fill out the online form and then someone will contact you to assist you.

How to Appeal a Denial of Benefits

If you are denied pension, Housebound Benefits, or A&A, you will need to file a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) with the VA Office that issued the denial. For help, contact a local disability lawyer who's certified by the VA.

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