However, we understand that sometimes your case may be extra complicated or you may feel like you simply do not have the time to research and prepare the claim or appeal alone.
In these cases, there are qualified people you can turn to that can help you submit your claim or appeal. These are claims agents, veteran service officers (VSOs), and attorneys.
But of all the options out there, how do you know which are legitimate and which are the best for your particular case?
Here are things you can do to ensure that your case is in good hands.
1. Check for VA Accreditation
First and foremost, if someone is helping you submit your claim or appeal, then they are acting as your representative before the VA, and in order to legally do this, they must be accredited by the VA.
To be accredited, the individual must pass an exam and a background check, and take regular continuing-education courses to keep up to date on the latest from the VA. All accredited representatives agree to abide by standards of conduct that ensure that they act honestly, diligently, legally, and competently in all their dealings with both the veteran and the VA.
Accredited individuals fall into three categories: VSOs, claims agents, and attorneys.
2. Decide Between a VSO, Claims Agent, or Attorney
So how do you know which one is right for the job?
Let’s discuss the difference between VSOs, claims agents, and attorneys.
Veterans Service Officers (VSOs, a.k.a. “veterans service representatives”) are individuals employed by a government office (like a county or state office) or by a Veterans Service Organization (also called a “VSO”—we know, not at all confusing).
Veterans Service Organizations are non-profits authorized by the VA to employ VSOs to assist veterans with their claims. Not all Veterans Service Organizations can help with claims, but many can, including AMVETS, the DAV, The American Legion, VFW, Vietnam Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and more.
Since VSOs are employed by an entity, they represent veterans for free and cannot charge for any of their services, which means that they can assist on all types of claims, from initial claims to advanced appeals. This also means, though, that they often have too many cases and not enough time. It’s most common for VSOs to work primarily on initial claims and basic appeals.
Claims agents are basically VSOs, but they function independently and are not usually associated with an authorized organization.
Since they are not employed by an organization, they usually charge a fee for their services. This means that claims agents can choose to take on smaller case-loads and spend more focused time on each case.
The VA does not allow anyone to charge for services provided before an initial claim is processed (we’ll discuss this more below), so claims agents usually only assist veterans with appeals, supplemental claims, etc., though they can choose to take on initial claims pro bono if they want to.
Attorneys can provide similar service as claims agents and VSOs, but usually specialize in appeals and other higher-level dealings before the VA, the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), or other US Courts. Like claims agents, they also charge a fee, and so do not usually work on initial claims.
Because of their legal expertise, attorneys are the best option when trying to fight a complicated case or get a decision made that is contrary to the current laws/regulations. If you are appealing to courts beyond the BVA, it’s often a good idea to have an attorney.
Unlike VSOs and claims agents, attorneys do not have to take an examination to be accredited by the VA, but they do have to show that they are in good standing with their State bar. Because of this, it is important to make sure your attorney has sufficient experience working in veterans disability law to ensure your claim is satisfactorily represented by someone versed in these complicated laws.
3. Find a Representative
Once you know whether you are looking for a VSO, claims agent, or attorney, you can search in the VA’s database of Accredited Representatives. It can be accessed through VA.gov or eBenefits.
It’s ideal to find someone who practices within your Regional VA district so they can more easily assist you with local services (transportation to appointments, etc.), but location is not a requirement for representation.
Depending on the demand in your area, you may need to contact multiple representatives until you find one that has the time to take on your case and has sufficient experience with the similar cases.
4. Sign a Fee Agreement
Accredited representatives cannot charge you for any services they provide before your initial claim is decided. They can only charge a fee for services provided (notice of disagreements, appeals, supplemental claims, etc.) after the VA makes a decision on your initial claim. Because of this, VSOs are usually the only representatives to help with an initial claim since they will get paid their salary from their organization regardless of the type of claim. Most initial claims, however, are submitted without the assistance of a representative.
Once fees are allowed, they are usually charged on a contingent basis, meaning that you only pay your representative after you win your claim/appeal. Your representative could also choose to charge you an hourly or flat-rate fee, but this is rare.
The amount of the fees depends on the complexity of your case, but the VA considers up to 20% of your back pay (the amount you are given for the time between your effective date and the date of the Rating Decision) a reasonable fee for most claims. Anything over 33.3%, even for most complex cases, is considered unreasonable.
You must sign a Fee Agreement with your representative in advance in order for them to charge you. The representative will then officially file the Fee Agreement once you register them as your representative.
5. Register Your Representative
In order to represent you, the representative must be officially registered as your legal representative with the VA. To appoint your representative, you need to submit VA Form 21-22 (for reps from Veterans Service Organizations) or VA Form 21-22a (for all others) to your Regional VA Office. You can also appoint them through your online VA.gov or eBenefits account.
By registering them, you are giving your representative the Power of Attorney to act on your behalf before the VA in matters relating to your claims and benefits. You can choose to remove or change your representative at any time as long as you officially register the change with the VA.
Once your representative is registered, they can begin working on getting you the benefits you deserve, helping you prepare and submit your claim/appeal, and keeping you updated throughout the process.