Veterans benefits can be a source of confusion and frustration for military families. This typically occurs because senior veterans don’t know their rights or don’t understand the bureaucratic barriers to apply for veterans benefits.
In particular, senior veterans may be surprised to learn that they may qualify for a range of healthcare services and financial assistance. Each program has its own benefit coverage and eligibility requirements, which may seem unclear at first glance.
Sorting through this information can be a headache, so we’ve put together this guide to help you get started. Here we’ll give an overview of senior veterans benefits, as well as other key benefits and instructions for applying.
Note: To the best of our ability, we’ve aimed to provide the most useful, accurate information for senior veterans to receive their benefits. However, you should contact a veterans benefits specialist to verify your eligibility and any changes in program requirements.
Senior veterans benefits
Veterans benefits for seniors are notoriously underused. Let’s go over the five most important health-related benefit programs for senior veterans, so you have a better idea of your rights. Most of these services are need-based, which means eligibility may be linked to your financial situation.
1. Veterans Pension
The Veterans Pension is the single most important benefit for senior veterans. This pension becomes available to veterans once they reach the age of 65. It’s intended for low-income veterans and/or those who meet certain conditions.
To qualify, you must fulfill both the military duty requirement and the need requirement:
Military duty requirement
According to the VA, you must have undergone 90 days of active duty, including 1 day during a wartime period (see here for official wartime dates). The duty period may vary depending on when you served as well. For example, if your active duty occurred after 9/7/1980, the duty period must be at least 24 months. (If you were an officer after 10/16/1981, you don’t need to meet this 24 months requirement.) In addition, if you received a dishonorable discharge, you may not be eligible regardless of your duty period.
You must be at least 65 years old and meet one (or more) of the following conditions:
- Low-income. You must fall within the net worth limit of $129,094 (as of 12/1/2019). This includes your annual income and your personal property (except your house and car), including your spouse’s assets. The amount will also depend on whether you have dependents, or your spouse is a veteran too. You can get more info about how net worth is calculated here.
- OR Permanent disability
- OR Receiving skilled nursing care
- OR Getting Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income
Once you’ve confirmed your eligibility for these criteria, you can take the next step and apply for this pension.
What’s the 3-year look-back period?
Veterans who transferred their assets recently may be subject to a 3-year look-back period. When you file a pension application, the VA will look to see if asset transfer has made you eligible by placing you within the net worth limit. This applies for the last three years before filing your application. If this is the case, the veteran will need to undergo a penalty period up to 5 years. (This policy started on 10/18/2018, so if you filed an application before then, the look-back period doesn’t apply.)
How much will my VA pension be?
Pension rates are set by Congress on a yearly basis, which is called the Maximum Annual Pension Rate (MAPR). This calculation is based on certain life factors, such as income, dependents, etc. You can see the current table of rates here.
2. Aid and Attendance (A&A)
Next up is the Aid and Attendance (A&A) program. This benefit is a monthly payment on top of the VA pension mentioned above. You must currently receive the VA pension to apply for A&A veterans benefits.
The A&A program is designed for senior veterans who need assistance with daily activities or are otherwise housebound. The veteran’s home care needs may range, depending on the medical situation.
However, to be eligible, the veteran must meet one of the following medical needs;
- Needs help performing daily activities (i.e. custodial care)
- OR Stays in bed all or most of the day because of illness
- OR Lives in a nursing home due to disability-related loss of ability
- OR Has limited eyesight (5/200 or less in both eyes or contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees or less, even with glasses/contacts)
If you fulfill one of these medical needs, you should apply to receive the A&A benefit. For senior veterans, this supplement can be a huge relief for medical costs. Often it can be applied to a range of care options, including nursing homes, senior rehabilitation centers, assisted living programs and in-home care.
3. Housebound program
The Housebound program is similar to A&A but has a slightly different focus. Once again, Housebound veterans benefits are only available to veterans who are receiving a VA pension.
This program is for veterans with permanent disabilities. If you’re a veteran who spends most of the time at home due to a disability, the Housebound program will supplement your pension to help pay for medical and custodial costs.
Can I get both A&A and Housebound veterans benefits?
No, you can’t. A&A and Housebound have different eligibility requirements and you can’t receive both. If you have a permanent disability that makes you housebound, you should apply for the Housebound program. Otherwise, you should consider the A&A program.
4. VA medical centers
Another useful benefit for senior veterans is VA healthcare, provided at VA medical centers. VA healthcare is considered a high-quality service provider that serves 9 million veterans a year. Unfortunately, the VA system isn’t available to all veterans. Veterans are granted access to VA healthcare after fulfilling the military requirement and based on their priority group (see below).
Military duty requirement
You must have served active duty in the military, navy or air force. If you served before 9/7/1980, there is no required duty period. If after 9/7/1980, you must have served for 24 months (or the full term of service). Certain exemptions apply to the duty period, such as being discharged for a service-related disability or “early out” hardship. National Guard members must have become active duty under a federal order and completed their full term of service. Finally, if you received a dishonorable discharge, you may not be eligible regardless of your duty period.
Priority group assignment
After meeting the military duty requirement, you can apply for VA healthcare. When you do, you’ll be placed in a priority group, ranging between one and eight. Depending on your military service, disability rating, income level and other veterans benefit criteria, you’ll be assigned a priority group.
Veterans in the priority 1 group will receive care access first. For example, veterans with a service-related disability fall within the priority 1 group. At the same time, veterans without a service-related disability and with a high income will be placed in the priority 8 group.
Each priority group has different criteria (you can see the full list of priority groups here). For senior veterans, there are a few key points to keep in mind:
- If you receive A&A or Housebound veterans benefits, you’re within the priority 4 group (or higher).
- If you receive a VA pension, you’re within the priority 5 group (or higher).
- If your income level changes or your disability gets worse, you may receive a higher priority rating.
What criteria will earn me a higher priority group?
If you’re interested in how each priority group is determined, you can see the full list here. Each level factors in disability, military honors, veterans benefits, specific military duty criteria and income level.
Will I have to pay co-pays with VA healthcare?
It depends. If you fall into the higher income level – typically priority 7 and 8 groups – you may have to pay co-pays. You can view current co-pay rates here.
5. Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC)
Finally, senior veterans and their families may be eligible to receive caregiver support. This benefit is intended for designated family caregivers of a veteran who live full-time with him/her.
To qualify, the veteran must have a disability rating of 70% (or higher) to qualify, which is related to active-duty service after 9/11/2001 or after 5/7/1975. He/she must also need at least 6 months of personal care services, including custodial care such as feeding and toileting.
This benefit gives primary caregivers a monthly stipend, access to health care benefits and 30 days of respite care. Primary and secondary caregivers will also receive training, counseling, stipends for care-related travel.
Even if your senior veteran doesn’t fit these requirements, you may be able to access General Caregiver Support Services (PGCSS), which offers resources, education and support for caregivers. There’s no formal application process. You can check out these resources here.
Other key veterans benefits for seniors
In addition to the five main categories listed above, senior veterans may be eligible for a range of other service-related benefits. Not all of them are healthcare-based. Instead, these veterans benefits cover expenses related to death, burial and family support.
Let’s take a closer look at these key veterans benefits for seniors.
1. Survivor’s pension
If you’re the surviving spouse (or dependent child) of a veteran, you may be eligible for a survivor’s pension. The requirements for receiving this pension are similar to the Veterans Pension.
Military duty requirement
The deceased veteran must meet the military duty requirement equal to the Veterans Pension criteria. In other words, the veteran must have undergone 90 days of active duty, including 1 day during a wartime period. The duty period may depend on when he/she served. If the active duty occurred after 9/7/1980, the duty period must be at least 24 months. (If the veteran was an officer after 10/16/1981, he/she doesn’t need to meet the 24 months requirement.) In addition, the veteran won’t be eligible if he/she received a dishonorable discharge.
As the surviving spouse (or dependent child), you must also meet a financial need requirement. Your family’s income and net worth can’t exceed limits set by Congress. Generally speaking, this limit is the same as the Veterans Pension (i.e. a net worth limit of $129,094). For your reference, you can see current rates here.
Are there any other eligibility requirements?
Yes. The spouse can’t have remarried after the veteran’s death. Also, if the veteran was dishonorably discharged, eligibility is forfeited as well.
Can I receive the survivor’s pension as a child of the deceased veteran?
Yes, but only under certain conditions. You must be unmarried and under the age of 18. Or, you must meet special exceptions. If you’re attending a VA-approved school and you’re under the age of 23, you may qualify. In addition, if you’re disabled (and the disability occurred before the age of 18), you’re also eligible.
2. Life insurance
Moreover, senior veterans may not know that they’re eligible for life insurance through their past service. There are a variety of options available depending on your situation. Overall, veterans quality for three different life insurance programs:
- VGLI (Veterans’ Group Life Insurance): This program is for former service members who had SGLI insurance and were disabled on duty, or those who had SGLI and are within 1 year and 120 days of being released from active duty, being assigned inactive duty, being given temporary disability, or retiring. You can get between $10,000-$400,000 in life insurance benefits based on your SGLI insurance. To get it, you must apply within 1 year and 120 days of leaving the military.
- S-DVI (Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance): Veterans who were disabled on duty may be eligible for S-DVI life insurance. You must be a veteran who was released from active duty after 4/25/1951, had a service-related disability and are in good health otherwise. You can receive up to $30,000 in coverage.
- VMLI (Veterans’ Mortgage Life Insurance): Lastly, veterans may qualify for mortgage protection insurance. In this case, they must have a service-connected disability and received a grant to adapt their home to their needs (i.e. Specially Adapted Housing grant). They must also own the title and mortgage and be under 70 years old. This mortgage life insurance can run up to $200,000.
3. Veterans benefits for special groups
In addition, there are some special programs and benefits available to veterans who fall into special groups. Besides elderly veterans, these include:
- Gulf War Veterans
- Homeless Veterans
- Incarcerated Veterans
- Korean War Veterans
- LGBT Veterans
- Minority Veterans
- Native American Veterans
- Former PoWs
- Veterans Living Overseas
- Vietnam War Veterans
- Women Veterans
- World War II Veterans
If you’re a part of any of these special groups, be sure to check for programs, grants and/or benefits here that may fit your situation. You should also consider talking with a veterans benefits specialist for more details.
4. Military burial
Another veterans benefit to keep in mind is military burial. Currently, the benefit allowance is $2,000 for a service-related death (or $1,500 before 9/11/2001), as well as $796 if hospitalized by the VA at the time of death or $300 otherwise. In addition, the families of deceased veterans may be eligible for a $796 plot allowance if not buried in a national cemetery.
To get this benefit, you must have paid for the funeral and not have been reimbursed by any other agency or organization. The family is eligible if the deceased veteran was receiving or was eligible for a VA pension, or under care at a VA facility. (Exceptions for this benefit include the following: the veteran must not have received a dishonorable discharge, be a member of Congress at the time of death or have been a federal prisoner.)
5. Other programs
In addition to those listed above, senior veterans may be eligible for a range of other VA programs and benefits. These may include:
- Disability compensation
- Education and training
- VA home loans
- Financial counseling
- Independent living services
Be sure to look at the complete VA website to get a sense of the variety of veterans benefits available.
Instructions to apply for veterans benefits
All the senior veterans benefits listed here require an application. If you think you’re eligible for a benefit, you must submit an application, which is then reviewed by the VA office.
How to apply
You have several options to apply for veterans benefits. Overall, there are four main ways to apply.
- eBenefits site
You can submit an application online. This is important in 2020 because many VA offices are closed due to COVID. On this portal, you can apply for and manage your benefits without needing to go in-person.
- Accredited representative or agent
If you prefer, you can also use an accredited representative or agent to help you apply for veterans benefits. There are many veteran service organizations (VSOs) who assist veterans who don’t have the resources or know-how to apply on their own. VSOs provide services for free, unless under special circumstances. On the other hand, veterans agents (VAs) may charge fees for their services. If you decide to use a VSO or VA, make sure they are accredited. You can search for verified veterans agents here.
- VA regional office
In addition, you can go to a VA regional office where an employee will help you. This is a good option if you have a facility near you. However, remember that during COVID many of these offices are closed or have reduced hours.
- By mail
Finally, you can apply for many veterans benefits through the mail. Simply fill in the correct form, print it off and mail it to the pension management center (PMC). You can get the mailing address here.
Resources for veterans applications
Each benefit program has separate eligibility and application requirements. If you want an overview of what’s expected for each program, the VA website has an excellent chart you can use to find the right information. Here you’ll find applications for different programs, as well as some basic instructions.
To help you out, here are some common questions about veterans applications:
How long does it take to process applications?
There’s no set length for processing applications. Each application is processed in the order received.
How can I get help with applying for veterans benefits?
If you need help applying for veterans benefits, or receive an undesirable outcome, we highly recommend you talk to a veteran service organization, veteran agent or a VA office employee. The process of applying can be complicated and it’s useful to have a helping hand.
Can I combine veterans benefits with other insurance?
If you have private insurance, for example through a spouse, you can usually combine it with your veterans benefits. Having private insurance won’t impact your benefits, but it could be helpful to bill non-service related medical expenses. Check out this resource to get a better sense of how insurance is combined with benefits.
Is COVID impacting veterans benefits applications?
Finally, during the COVID pandemic, remember that while some VA offices are closed or have reduced hours, you can still apply and receive your veterans benefits. By applying online, you can get your request processed without any delays. The VA also provides a COVID chatbot if you have any concerns. You can also get COVID-related information about your appointments, facilities and prescriptions and benefits payments here.
Understanding senior veterans benefits can be overwhelming. We hope this guide gives you a better sense of the main benefit areas, as well as how to apply for them. As you research senior care for veterans, you can also take a look at MyCaringPlan’s website for veterans service providers that may be right for you and your family.
Lastly, if you run into any trouble with your veterans benefits, be sure to contact the VA or a veterans benefits specialist near you.