“Today, we’re going to be talking about death benefits in the new PACT Act, which is the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act that was passed in August 2022.
“Hello, my name is Zack Evans. I’m a disability benefits attorney with Woods and Woods attorneys in Evansville, Indiana.
“Essentially, DIC is a type of benefit for surviving family members of veterans of our armed forces. The DIC cases we work most commonly are cause of death cases. These are the types of cases where a specific condition that was either the primary or contributory cause of death for a veteran is service connected, and the widow is eligible for a monthly maintenance payment and tax-free compensation from the VA.”
Why apply now?
“The reason we’re going to be revisiting this right now is because of specific provisions within the PACT Act. The one that is most important for surviving spouses of veterans is section 204. Essentially, this section says that older death benefit denials that could have been granted due to changes in presumptions, and there are several of them, are eligible for effective dates as if the new law was in effect at the time of the submission of the original claim.
“What this means is that even if you were denied in the past, let’s say you lost a spouse and you applied for cause of death benefits with the VA and they denied you, 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 they told you no last time.”
What is a presumptive condition?
“A presumptive condition is a type of condition that does not require a medical nexus opinion. We have other videos and posts discussing what a medical nexus is, but basically, it’s 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. If a condition is presumptive, you don’t need that piece of the puzzle. You don’t need a medical expert to go on the record for you and say, ‘I reviewed all of these records. There’s a lot of research that supports this. The chronicity of his disease and how it progressed fits with an exposure of this type, either to Agent Orange or fine particulate matter from burn pits.’
“This is a really important distinction here. These presumptive conditions are very important for surviving spouses of veterans. And finally, the VA is going to be forced by Congress to take another look at these previous denials.”
Who will benefit from these changes?
“Surviving spouses of Vietnam era veterans are most likely to benefit from these rule changes. This is because of the alarming rate at which we’re losing Vietnam veterans. The two biggest categories for these claims are surviving spouses of veterans that served on Royal Thai Air Force bases and veterans that died of complications from hypertension, or where hypertension was a contributing factor. If you were previously denied for death benefits and still have a copy of your spouse’s death certificate, look to see if hypertension is listed as either a primary or contributory secondary cause of death.
“Other conditions on death certificates that could be impacted by hypertension are heart disease, stroke, aortic dissection, kidney dysfunction or kidney failure, and COVID-19 infections as well. Hypertension is commonly listed alongside COVID-19 on death certificates. Usually, updates to the law, what we call a liberalization, result in more stringent restrictions on effective dates, but not this time. Surviving spouses who weren’t previously eligible now are and the VA has to look back at that initial denial.
“I expect to see the VA regional offices grant some of these claims if they’re forced to take another look. What I do not expect is a correct effective date. I see the VA fumble effective dates too often in other areas of my practice to trust that they’ll suddenly start getting these new decisions right.
“Some of these denials could have been within the past few years. But some of them that are years in the past also need to be reassessed by the VA. 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. That could mean you’re owed a huge amount of past-due benefits.”
What if I was denied because of where my spouse served?
“If your spouse died of complications from other Agent Orange presumptive conditions such as diabetes, coronary artery disease or certain types of cancers, but was denied due to not having served in the country of Vietnam, those should be looked at as well, especially if they served on a base in Thailand.
“Even if an earlier effective date of this type is unavailable, given the updates to the types of conditions that can be service connected, advances in our understanding of how chronic conditions interact could still land you forward-looking payments of about $1,400 a month in tax-free compensation benefits.”
Woods and Woods can help
“If you’re a spouse of a Vietnam era veteran who has unfortunately passed away, give us a call. We need to look at your old denials for these death benefits. The PACT Act has opened up the possibility for you to be granted compensation based on a previous denial. This is an exceedingly rare condition in this law. 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. Again, my name is Zack Evans with Woods and Woods attorneys.”
VA disability lawyer
Woods and Woods
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