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Additional Benefits for Vets?

A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit late last week will give millions of veterans a chance for an additional year of education benefits.

Military Times’s recent article entitled “Millions of vets may be eligible for extra GI Bill benefits thanks to court ruling” explains that it was one vet’s GI Bill fight that now gives benefits to potentially millions of other students.

The case, Rudsill vs. McDonough, has been pending in federal courts for nearly six years. At its center is department officials’ belief that vets can use either the Post 9/11 GI Bill program or the Montgomery GI Bill program, but not both. However, the case could give an additional year of benefits to those who’ve used up their post-9/11 GI Bill but still have some eligibility left under the Montgomery GI Bill program.

Jim Rudsill, an Army veteran wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005, challenged that policy, saying it was based on a misreading of the law by department officials. He’s attending seminary school using his additional education benefits, after a lower court order let him start collecting the money, even as the case was appealed.

This was the latest in a series of courts to support his case, agreeing that Rudsill shouldn’t have been forced to give up eligibility in either program and should be entitled to 48 months of education benefits (the existing cap on total government higher education payouts under federal statute.) The ruling affirms lower court decisions that say eligible vets can begin using the benefits as early as next semester.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans receive 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial help. The Montgomery GI Bill benefits program offers far less money, but still has several thousands of dollars annually to offer vets for tuition costs, if they paid into the program at the start of their military service. That program is expected to be completely phased out in the several years.

If they have a choice between the two programs, most veterans go with the more financially generous Post 9/11 GI Bill program. However, court decisions have allowed for the possibility of another year of lesser education stipend payouts for veterans who can’t complete their degrees in 36 months.

Federal officials have two months to appeal the ruling or start paying out potentially billions in new education benefits.

Reference: Military Times (July 12, 2021) “Millions of vets may be eligible for extra GI Bill benefits thanks to court ruling”

Can GI Benefits Be Used to Start a Business?

A proposal in Congress aims to let some recently separated service members use their GI Bill benefits to start a new business, rather than taking college classes. The legislation would establish a three-year pilot program for up to 250 veterans to pursue “educational entrepreneurial training” and receive their education payouts in the form of start-up capital, instead of the traditional tuition payments.

However, the bill hasn’t gained much legislative traction in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program.”

“Higher education is essential for many [veterans], but some have a different calling,” said Rep Ben Cline, R-Va. and a sponsor of the measure. “Veterans are seeking more options and want the choice to use their GI Bill benefit to start their own business. It’s common sense to offer veterans a choice in accessing resources, training and support to pursue the American dream to start a small business, create jobs and generate growth in our economy.”

Roughly 1.7 million veterans have some unused GI Bill benefits, and a new court ruling could provide a pathway to accessing them for the first time. Under the current post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans get 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance. In certain situations, service members can also transfer that benefit to a spouse or dependents for their college classes.

More than 2.5 million businesses in America are veteran-owned, making up just under 10% of all American small businesses. Supporters of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act say that individuals interested in pursuing that path after military service should not be shut out from using their earned benefits.

“By helping veterans start businesses, we are investing in America’s best and brightest,” co-sponsor Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., said in a statement.

“When our service members transition into civilian life, they bring considerable skills and experiences with them. Veterans know how to manage risk on the battlefield. And that’s what a successful entrepreneur does — manage risk.”

However, the bill has faced resistance in the past partly due to the fact that they are designed to help promote veteran entrepreneurship and employment, and in part because of concerns that misuse of the college benefit could result in long-term financial disadvantages for veterans.

Versions of the idea have made some progress in both the House and Senate in recent years but have not reached final approval from both chambers. No timeline has been set for a hearing or vote on the new proposal.

Reference: Military Times (July 16, 2021) “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program”

Will Vets Get More Time to Apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance?

The Department of Veterans Affairs has extended the deadline to apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance to include service members leaving the military through Dec. 11, 2021. During the pandemic, the VA provided more application time to anyone leaving the military from June 11, 2020, through June 11, 2021. The move allows troops leaving in the second half of last year to also get some extra time.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance” tells us how it works for those whose separation dates are between June 11, 2020, and Dec. 11, 2021:

  • To apply for VGLI without a health review to provide proof of good health, service members will be allowed to 330 days after they separate from the military, an increase of 90 days over the standard period of 240 days and
  • To apply with a health review of good health, service members will have up to one year and 210 days after leaving the service—an increase of 90 days over the standard period of one year and 120 days.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that the extension is aimed at relieving some of the financial effects of the pandemic for former service members, “especially those with disabilities incurred while in service, since many of these former members would otherwise not qualify for a private commercial plan of insurance due to such disabilities,” the VA states. Some troops may also have challenges with visiting their health care provider to get their medical records, according to the VA.

The Veterans’ Group Life Insurance coverage is an option for those who have Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. This permits them to convert their existing SGLI coverage to VGLI coverage. Both programs are administered by the Office of Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, and are supervised by the VA.

VGLI coverage is more expensive than Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. It increases in cost every five years up to age 80. Therefore, for instance, $400,000 worth of SGLI coverage costs the same — $25 a month — regardless of age. VGLI coverage of $400,000 at age 30 costs $36 a month, and at age 40 costs $64 a month. However, life insurance policies can be purchased in increments of $10,000 up to $400,000. Thus, a $10,000 policy would cost $1.60 a month for a 40-year-old.

Service members should shop around for life insurance and have a policy in hand well before their VGLI application deadline to ensure they have coverage, if there are health conditions that might make them ineligible for commercial life insurance coverage.

Reference: Military Times (June 18, 2021) “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance”

New Rules for Burial at Arlington National Cemetery

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said she expects revisions to those rules in coming months, but would not say whether that would tighten or loosen the proposed eligibility restrictions.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “As space dwindles, final rules on burial eligibility for Arlington Cemetery expected this fall,” reports that new eligibility rules for Arlington Cemetery would exclude most non-combat veterans.

“We continue to explore all viable options to ensure Arlington National Cemetery continues to honor our nation’s heroes for generations to come,” she said. “It’s really an impossible problem for us. The eligible population is more than 22 million … currently today, we have less than 85,000 spaces.”

The proposed changes are aimed at extending the use of the cemetery for several more decades.

In 2019, Army officials suggested restricting all below-ground burial sites to combat heroes, battle casualties and a small pool of notable dignitaries. Other veterans would be eligible for placement of cremated remains in above-ground structures at the cemetery. However, many veteran groups were against this, saying it could upset numerous families’ end-of-life plans and risks the perception that certain military experiences are more valuable than others.

About 400,000 individuals are buried at Arlington now, and roughly 7,000 individuals are interred at the cemetery annually.  those numbers were reduced last year due to COVID restrictions.

The expansion plans are expected to add about 80,000 new burial spaces to the cemetery.

“Without changes to eligibility, Arlington National Cemetery will run out of space for new burials in the early 2040s or the mid-2060s with the construction of the Southern Expansion project, even for those service members who are killed in action or are recipients of the Medal of Honor.”

With the eligibility changes, officials estimate the site can remain an active cemetery for more than 150 years.

These proposed rule changes for Arlington wouldn’t change the veterans cemetery sites run by the Department of Veterans Affairs across the country.

Reference: Military Times (May 5, 2021) “As space dwindles, final rules on burial eligibility for Arlington Cemetery expected this fall”

Can I Be Paid for Caring for a Loved One?

AARP’s recent article entitled “Can I Get Paid to Be a Caregiver for a Family Member?” says that roughly 53 million Americans provide care without pay to an ailing or aging loved one. They do so for an average of nearly 24 hours per week. The study was done by the “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC).

Medicaid. All 50 states and DC have self-directed Medicaid services for long-term care. These programs let states grant waivers that allow qualified people to manage their own long-term home-care services, as an alternative to the traditional model where services are managed by an agency. In some states, that can include hiring a family member to provide care. The benefits, coverage, eligibility, and rules differ from state to state.

Veterans have four plans for which they may qualify:

Veteran Directed Care. This plan lets qualified former service members manage their own long-term services and supports. It is available in 37 states, DC, and Puerto Rico for veterans of all ages who are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration health care system and need the level of care a nursing facility provides but want to live at home or the home of a loved one.

Aid and Attendance (A&A) benefits. This program supplements a military pension to help cover the cost of a caregiver, who may be a family member. These benefits are available to veterans who qualify for VA pensions and meet certain criteria. In addition, surviving spouses of qualifying veterans may be eligible for this benefit.

Housebound benefits. Vets who get a military pension and are substantially confined to their immediate premises because of permanent disability can apply for a monthly pension supplement.

Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. This program gives a monthly stipend to a vet’s family members who serve as caregivers who need assistance with everyday activities because of a traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

Other caregiver benefits through the program include the following:

  • Access to health insurance and mental health services, including counseling
  • Comprehensive training
  • Lodging and travel expenses incurred when accompanying vets going through care; and
  • Up to 30 days of respite care per year.

Payment by a family member. If the person requiring assistance is mentally sound and has sufficient financial resources, that person can pay a family member for the same services a professional home health care worker would provide.

Reference: AARP (May 15, 2021) “Can I Get Paid to Be a Caregiver for a Family Member?”

Should Vets Be on Look-out for COVID Vaccine Scams?

Officials from Operation Protect Veterans — a joint effort from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and AARP that works on scams targeting veterans and military members — said they have seen a recent uptick in the number of illicit offers for veterans to “cut in the vaccination line,” if they provide cash to third-party groups.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “Warning: Post Office sees rise in COVID vaccination scams targeting veterans” says that the group also warned of scammers offering “cash payments or other incentives around obtaining a COVID vaccination.”

VA officials will reimburse veterans for the cost of vaccines by the department’s Foreign Medical Program. However, they do not help them find vaccine appointments.

Legislation approved last month by Congress allows all veterans, their spouses and caregivers to get coronavirus vaccines through the Department of Veterans Affairs free of cost. The timing and availability of those shots depends on local supplies.

However, VA officials have stressed the fact that people do not need to pay to receive a dose. Any outside group promising quicker delivery in exchange for cash are taking advantage of confused or frustrated veterans.

“In addition to many of the same scams that fraudsters use to target veterans, we’re now seeing more ‘timely’ scams, like those related to COVID,” said Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale in a statement.

“And as May is Military Appreciation Month, it’s a great time for everyone to become informed and spread the word about scams targeting veterans in order to, in some small way, help repay the tremendous debt we all owe those who have served.”

An AARP survey from 2017 found that vets are twice as likely to be victims of scammers as the general public. The survey found that one in six veterans reported losing money to a bogus offer of benefits or assistance.

The U.S. Postal Service cautions vets not to divulge their personal information over the phone to strangers, especially bank account numbers, credit card numbers or Social Security numbers.

Moreover, they also said any veteran with questions about an unsolicited offer or program should check out the deal with a family member, friend, or local Veterans Affairs office.

Anyone who demands veterans act immediately on such a transaction are like scammers.

More information on scams and protections for vets is available at the Postal Inspection Service web site.

Reference: Military Times (April 30, 2021) “Warning: Post Office sees rise in COVID vaccination scams targeting veterans”

Some Veteran Caregivers Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine through VA

The move is the result of a coalition of veterans groups that lobbied for the caregivers to be sent to the top of the vaccine list, arguing that they deserved to be included in the first wave of medical professionals being protected against the deadly illness, says Military Times’ recent article entitled “Tens of thousands of veteran caregivers now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine through VA.”

Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the VA, released a memo stating that those registered with the department’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers can be given the vaccine “in a coordinated manner with the veterans for whom they provide care.”

More than 6,700 VA patients have died from COVID complications in the last 10 months. Stone’s memo states that decisions will be made “in balance with site-specific resources, needs, vaccine availability, hesitancy to accept the vaccine and status of the pandemic locally.”

In an interview with Military Times, Stone commented that he is shifting many of those vaccination decisions to local officials to give coverage to more individuals.

“We need to leave it up to people at the bedsides, to make sure they are making the best decisions for veterans,” he said. “When someone brings a veteran in to give them the vaccine, they can easily identify what the other needs are.”

Roughly 20,000 veterans are registered in the caregiver program at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This program provides monthly stipends and other support to individuals providing regular medical assistance to infirm veterans.

The data shows that the majority of this group are family members of post-9/11 veterans. The caregiver assistance program was expanded last fall to veterans who served before May 1975.

And recently, a coalition of veteran groups, including The Independence Fund, Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Non-Commissioned Officers Association sent a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials asking them to authorize the VA to administer the caregiver vaccines, under its role as the lead coordinator of federal response to the pandemic.

Dr. Stone said as of January 13, VA officials had administered the first dose of the two-part vaccine to more than 332,000 department health care employees and veterans at high-risk of contracting coronavirus. Another 45,000 individuals have already received their second dose. The vaccine has been sent to nearly 200 department facilities. However, officials have warned that it could be months before they can administer the more than 7 million vaccines they expect to be requested by veterans and staff.

Reference: Military Times (Jan. 14, 2021) “Tens of thousands of veteran caregivers now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine through VA”

Federal Court Decides for ‘Blue Water’ Navy Veterans

In November, the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled in favor of thousands of “blue water” Navy veterans and their survivors, who argued that they’re being wrongly denied benefits as part of a deal reached by Congress last year.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “New court ruling could give thousands of Vietnam vets and survivors overdue disability payouts” reports that under that plan, the Department of Veterans Affairs was required to grant presumptive benefit status for chemical defoliant exposure to veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during that war.

Advocates for years had said that VA’s requirement of direct proof of exposure was hard to obtain, when it has been decades after veterans were in the service. However, more than 22,500 blue water veterans or survivors have received VA benefits payouts since the beginning of 2020.

The new law didn’t require VA officials to go back and review cases denied before 2020. Vets who reapplied for benefits could have their cases considered again, but advocates argue that all of the cases should be resurfaced and reviewed by the VA.

In an interview with Military Times, Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence said no decision has been made by VA and Department of Justice officials on an appeal. However, he did remark that the lawsuit was discussed as part of VA’s preparations for the new benefits processing at the start of this year.

If the decision stands — either upon further appeal or if the government opts to simply accept the latest ruling — Lawrence said he’s confident the VA can start reviewing those cases without any significant disruption to operations.

President Trump signed legislation granting presumptive status for disability benefits to about 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war. This concludes a long battle to get disability benefits more quickly for up to 90,000 Navy veterans who served in Vietnam.

VA has already paid out about $700 million in retroactive benefits related to the “blue water” veterans benefits in 2020.

Reference: Military Times (Nov. 16, 2020) “New court ruling could give thousands of Vietnam vets and survivors overdue disability payouts”