VA benefits for surviving spouses help those left behind upon a veteran’s death. Recent changes in the law mean widows of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans may be eligible for increased benefits or even benefits the VA previously denied. This post explains.
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If your late spouse was a Vietnam or Gulf War veteran and had a resulting disability, you might consider whether to file again for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits. A new law, including changes to conditions assumed to be associated with service in those areas and to the list of who is eligible, may mean that the VA owes you money previously denied.
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Why it’s a good time to file for VA surviving spouse benefits
VA benefits for surviving spouses sometimes change. These changes typically occur due to advances in the understanding of certain medical conditions and new or altered laws that impact benefits. Both happen to be the case for Vietnam veterans and their survivors.
The PACT Act, which was signed into law in August 2022, allows millions more veterans to receive VA disability benefits and health care. Veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits, Agent Orange, and contaminated water at Camp Lejeune may benefit from the act.
The law also opened up an opportunity for surviving spouses to receive benefits they were previously denied.
“Surviving spouses of Vietnam-era veterans are most likely to benefit from this rule change,” said Zack Evans, a VA-certified benefits attorney. “This is because of the alarming rate at which we’re losing Vietnam veterans.”
If a veteran is deceased, a surviving spouse with a previously denied claim may benefit from the changes, making now a good time to file for VA surviving spouse benefits. And Evans said how long ago the veteran died is not a factor as long as service-connected conditions contributed to the death.
“Even if you lost your loved one 20 years ago, the VA still owes you a second look and a shot at that old effective date,” he said.
Veterans exposed to Agent Orange
Before the passage of the PACT Act, veterans were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange if they served “boots on the ground” in Vietnam, on its inland waterways, on ships within 12 nautical miles of the Vietnam coast, in the Korean demilitarized zone, or on C-123 airplanes that transported Agent Orange.
The PACT Act expanded eligibility for VA disability benefits related to Agent Orange to military members who served in these additional locations:
|Thailand (at any U.S. or Royal Thai base)||Jan. 9, 1962 – June 30, 1976|
|Laos||Dec. 1, 1965 – Sept. 30, 1969|
|Cambodia (at Mimot or Krek, Kampong Cham Province)||April 16, 1969 – April 30, 1969|
|Guam or American Samoa (or in the territorial waters)||Jan. 9, 1962 – July 31, 1980|
|Johnston Atoll (or on a ship that called at Johnston Atoll)||Jan. 1, 1972 – Sept. 30, 1977|
If your late spouse served in one of these areas and died from a resulting disability, you may be eligible for additional compensation due to changes in the law.
VA benefits for survivors of Vietnam veterans
Various benefits are available for veterans’ survivors through the VA, depending on the specific circumstances of the veteran’s military service and resulting disabilities. The benefit most notable in relation to the PACT Act is Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which provides a monthly tax-free payment of $1,562.74 to a surviving spouse. The payment increases with dependents and special circumstances.
To qualify for DIC benefits, a spouse must prove the veteran died from a service-connected disability or that it contributed to their passing. Another option is to prove that the veteran was eligible to receive VA compensation for a totally disabling service-connected disability for at least 10 years before death.
To receive the benefits, a spouse must have lived with the veteran until the death. If not, the surviving spouse can still collect payments if not at “fault” for the separation.
A surviving spouse must also either:
- Be married to the veteran within 15 years of their discharge from the military service during which the qualifying illness or injury started or worsened
- Be married to the veteran for at least a year
- Have a child with the veteran
The marriage requirement includes common-law or same-sex marriages where couples were in a “deemed valid marriage” for a year. In the case of same-sex marriages, a survivor must show satisfactory evidence that they were effectively in a marital relationship for the specified period of time if they were legally kept from marrying earlier.
Surviving spouses also can continue receiving DIC benefits if they remarry, but only if:
- They remarried on or after Dec. 16, 2003, and were 57 years of age or older at the time
- They remarried on or after Jan. 5, 2021, and were 55 years of age or older at the time
Survivors who file for DIC under changes resulting from the PACT Act might receive a monthly payment and back pay.
Hypertension and Agent Orange
The PACT Act added some urgency for Vietnam veterans and their surviving spouses when it added hypertension to the list of presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange Exposure. A presumptive condition is one that the VA automatically assumes is related to service, so the connection between service and the disability doesn’t have to be proven.
“A presumptive condition is a type of condition that does not require a medical nexus opinion. The medical nexus is a professional opinion from a medical expert that says condition X is related to a veteran’s service, and because of that, the cause of death should be considered service connected,” Evans said. “If a condition is presumptive, you don’t need that piece of the puzzle. So, this is a really important distinction here. Presumptive conditions are very important for surviving spouses of veterans. And the VA is finally going to be forced by Congress to take another look at these previous denials.”
The act also expanded the list of service locations where veterans likely were exposed to Agent Orange, as described above when defining who qualifies as a Vietnam veteran.
Hypertension can be related to various heart conditions (including cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, aortic dissection, peripheral vascular disease, and embolisms). It also is related to nephropathies (including chronic kidney disease and kidney failure), and strokes or cerebrovascular accidents). Therefore, if your late spouse was a Vietnam veteran and died from a condition involving the heart, blood vessels, or kidneys, you could win a DIC case because of the presumption of Agent Orange exposure and its relationship with hypertension.
Cases that the VA previously denied may now be eligible for earlier effective dates, which is the date of entitlement to benefits. It’s typically the date the VA received a veteran’s claim, or the veteran became eligible for benefits. The earlier the effective date, the more back payment that’s involved.
Evans said the VA must review these cases.
“Even if you were denied in the past, the VA has to take a new look at those previous denials, no matter how old they are. And they have to view those previous denials as if these new law provisions were in effect at the time that they told you ‘no’ last time,” he said.
“Woods and Woods experience will give you the best chance to get what you deserve.“
Also, spouses previously denied benefits because of a veteran’s service location may now be eligible to receive them because of the new presumptive Agent Orange locations.
The law says that the VA must review these cases as if the PACT Act was in effect at the time of the original claim’s submissions, regardless of when the veteran applied, was denied, or is still in appeal. These changes could mean significant back pay for Vietnam veterans’ survivors.
“The PACT Act has opened up a possibility for you to be granted benefits based on the previous denial. This is an exceedingly rare situation in this law,” he said. “Usually, you cannot reach that far back in terms of effective dates, and we don’t want you to miss out on your benefits. It’s taken long enough for Congress to acknowledge that these changes needed to happen.”
VA benefits for surviving spouses of Gulf War veterans
In addition to the Vietnam service-related changes, the PACT act added 23 new presumptive conditions associated with burn pits and expanded the list of eligible service areas.
The new presumptive conditions for Gulf War veterans are:
|Types of Cancer||Other Diseases|
|Head cancer of any type||Chronic bronchitis|
|Neck cancer of any type||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)|
|Respiratory cancer of any type||Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis|
|Gastrointestinal cancer of any type||Emphysema|
|Reproductive cancer of any type||Granulomatous disease|
|Lymphoma cancer of any type||Interstitial lung disease|
|Lymphomatic cancer of any type||Pleuritis|
|Kidney cancer||Pulmonary fibrosis|
The PACT Act brings the total number of presumptive conditions for burn pits to 33.
The act also expanded the presumption of exposure to burn pits to veterans who served in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen after Sept. 19, 2001, or in Somalia after Aug. 2, 1990. Those locations will now be on the list with other Gulf War veterans.
The same rules on case review apply to these new conditions, so these veterans or their surviving spouses also may qualify for additional benefits and back pay.
Gulf War veterans or their surviving spouses also can receive VA disability benefits for presumptive conditions related to Gulf War syndrome.
Until the passage of the PACT Act, Gulf War veterans only qualified for benefits if they developed a multi-symptom chronic disability of 10% or more before 2026. The new rule is if the disability “manifests at any degree and at any time.”
Claiming VA survivor’s benefits
The process of applying for DIC benefits can confuse many people. It’s also challenging when the rules change. If you think you now qualify for benefits the VA previously denied, call Woods and Woods for help. We’ll evaluate your case to see how we can help you get the benefits you’re owed.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Yes, the VA offers benefits to qualifying survivors, but they must apply for them. Survivors include spouses, children, and, in some cases, surviving parents. Surviving spouses of Vietnam or Gulf War veterans may be eligible for increased benefits because of changes under the recently-enacted PACT Act.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) provides a monthly tax-free payment of $1,562.74 to a surviving spouse. The payment increases with dependents and special circumstances. Surviving spouses of Vietnam or Gulf War veterans may be entitled to additional DIC benefits, including back payments, under the PACT Act.