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CAVC Issues Ruling on Accrued Benefits Claims

The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims issued a ruling clarifying VA's regulations for accrued benefits claims.: Photo by Flickr user s_falkow.

The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (Court) started off the new year by interpreting the law and regulations concerning an attempt to reopen a VA claim for accrued benefits.

What are Accrued Benefits?

If a Veteran dies while their claim is still pending before the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veteran’s spouse (or another family member, as allowed by the law) can apply for accrued benefits, or money owed to a Veteran by the VA that was unpaid at the time of the Veteran’s death.  See 38 U.S.C. § 5121 (c).

The law clearly indicates that an initial claim for accrued benefits must be filed within a year of the Veteran’s death. Until last Thursday, the regulations were less clear about reopening a previously-denied accrued benefits claim.

In Quattlebaum v. Shinseki, the Court clarified whether that year deadline also applied to attempts to reopen an accrued benefits claim.

Is an Accrued Benefits Claim fundamentally Different From a Disability Claim?

When a Veteran wants to reopen a closed disability claim (when the year appeals period has expired), they must submit new and material evidence in order to reopen the claim.  See 38 U.S.C. § 5108; 38 C.F.R. § 3.156.  According to VA’s argument in Quattlebaum, accrued benefits claims were fundamentally different from other VA claims.

VA argued that because the law, and in turn the regulations, impose a time limit on filing the initial accrued benefits claim, it is not possible to reopen a denied accrued benefits claim more than a year after the Veteran’s death.

VA further argued that because an accrued benefits claim is based on the evidence ‘in the file at the time of death,’ such evidence could not then also be considered the ‘new and material’ evidence required to reopen a claim.  This argument would guarantee that all finally denied accrued benefits claims could never be reopened, but would require a survivor to file for a revision of the denial based on clear and unmistakable error (CUE).

Court Disputes VA’s Interpretation

The Court disagreed with VA’s reading of the law stating, “On its face, section 5121 in no way indicates a preclusion of reopening accrued benefits claims. Similarly, section 5108 on its face allows the reopening of any previously disallowed claim. Read together, an accrued benefits claim must be filed within one year after the veteran’s date of death . . . and an accrued benefits claim can be reopened upon the presenting of new and material evidence.”

This ruling makes it clear that when it comes to reopening a denied claim, there is no difference between one for accrued benefits and any disability claim a Veteran files.

While the Court did state that finding new and material evidence on an accrued benefits claim could be difficult, it also admitted that there have been instances when documents were in the VA’s possession, but weren’t considered when the Veteran’s claim was originally decided, thus making them new and material.

It is important to remember that the Court ruling does not affect the initial year filing deadline. In order for an accrued benefits claim to even be considered, the beneficiary must file within this time period.

You can find the full decision at :

http://www.veteranslawlibrary.com/files/CAVC_cases/2012/Quattlebaum_09-3557.pdf

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