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13.3. Using Advocacy Organizations for Filing Claims
Congress intended the VA benefits system to be "non-adversarial" and friendly to veterans seeking assistance for hardships resulting from their service to the country. VA's duty to assist, the benefit of the doubt rule, and the ability to re-file denied claims are examples of a "veteran-friendly" process. For many veterans and dependents, the VA process has worked and continues to work well. For others, the process has proven to be difficult and confusing.
Even with VA "help," applying for and establishing entitlement to VA benefits can be a challenge. VA is overwhelmed with applications and rarely, if ever, provides updates or responds to calls or letters. Documents get lost and errors are frequently made in the haste to make decisions. The VA process also has "gotchas" that can trip up even the most experienced advocate. More often than not, a successful claim will require that a claimant have at least some knowledge of the specific benefit sought, an understanding of applicable laws, regulations and VA policies, and familiarity with the evidence that is necessary to support a claim, if only to detect the most obvious VA errors. Even if VA grants an award, a claimant still needs to check for errors in the rating or effective date assigned.
If a claimant is willing to put some effort into it, there is no reason why he or she cannot handle his or her own claim. Many veterans have been successful at obtaining the desired benefits without any assistance. Those who have been successful, however, often have some background in law, medicine, or administration and have an ability to conduct some level of legal research. Most importantly, they have the time to invest in learning about the VA system and to following the status of their claim.
Although VA rules allow almost anyone to be a representative, most claimants choose one of three types of representatives: service officers, claims agents, or attorneys. Service officers, also known as service representatives, are individuals who are employees of a recognized Veterans Service Organization ("VSO") or a state or county department of veterans affairs. Service officers through their experience, education, and training have been "accredited" by VA as having the ability to represent claimants in VA benefits claims. One advantage of service officers is that they do not charge any fee for assisting with a claim.
Another option claimants can use is a registered claims agent. Registered agents are non-attorneys who have been accredited by VA to represent claimants in much the same way as service officers. Agents are generally individuals with experience in the VA claims process who are not employees of a VSO. Unlike service officers, however, agents may charge a fee for their services assisting claimants after an NOD is filed (see discussion of fees in the attorney section).
Finally, a claimant can hire an attorney. Historically, attorneys were so constrained in the fees that they could charge that few if any veterans could hire an attorney to work on a VA claim. While some attorneys volunteered their work (known as working "pro bono"), veterans rarely were able to find an attorney who could help them. Attorneys are now able to represent claimants for a fee after a NOD has been filed. Many veterans have found that attorneys have the experience and training to respond to the legal issues which develop during appeals. This becomes even more true if a claim reaches the Court, although a claimant can still represent himself or herself at the Court. Attorneys, like agents, can charge a fee for their services that occur after an NOD is filed.
No matter whether a claimant decides to use a service officer, agent, or attorney as a representative, it is important to make sure that the individual chosen knows what he or she are doing. Representatives come in all sizes and shapes, just like any other service provider. No responsible representative will mind if a claimant asks questions about the representative's experience, what the representative will do to assist, and how much it will cost. A claimant should also do internet searches and talk to other veterans about representative recommendations. While most service officers handle cases from only their local area, agents and attorneys can and do handle cases from all over the country no matter where their office is located. This means that an attorney in New York can handle a case for a veteran in any other state. So if a veteran in California had a good experience with an attorney from Florida, that attorney may be a good person to start with when looking for a representative.