Estate Planning Risks for Veterans
You might expect that a program for veterans would run with military precision; unfortunately, that isn’t the case. It can be more like a collection of CATCH-22s — CATCH-22s requiring you or your loved ones to navigate before getting the full ration of benefits to which you are entitled. There are two fundamental challenges when it comes to Veterans Benefits. One is a lack of information and the other is lack of documentation.
Meeting the VA’s Criteria
Lack of information.
This challenge involves more than just knowing the number and types of benefits available, or how to learn about the application and appeals processes. Some Veterans Benefits are common. Likely you and your family are already aware of these: medical care and disability compensation. For other benefits, however, you or your family will need to know what is potentially available, the eligibility criteria for each specific benefit and which government agency handles that particular benefit. And finally, you have to apply for any benefit in the proper manner and using the required forms.
Lack of documentation.
You were in the military, yes? It should come as no surprise that the world of Veterans Benefits is filled with paperwork. This challenge requires that you file the appropriate paperwork with the appropriate office with the appropriate documentation attached.
There are several important documents that you and your family need to have available to apply for benefits. Veterans should keep these documents in a secure place like other important papers, such as mortgage documents, estate plans and insurance policies.
Organize Your Documents
Family members should be aware of the location and contents of these documents:
1. The veteran’s discharge certificate (DD214) or WW II equivalent;
2. VA documents, if any, indicating a VA claim number (after June 1974 the veteran’s social security number is assigned as the claim number);
3. A copy of all marriage certificates and divorce decrees (if any);
4. Family insurance policies including beneficiary designation;
5. A copy of the family will, medical directive and power of attorney (these are not required for VA benefits); and
6. Location of safety deposit boxes (not required by VA).
Proof of Service Required
Again, think CATCH-22. It may seem hard to believe, but the U.S. Government just can’t remember if you’re a veteran. You have to prove that you did indeed serve and that you are deserving of Veterans Benefits. Be sure to have a copy of your military discharge papers in hand whenever you are speaking to a government agency about your benefits.
Lack of skepticism — or said another way, being too trusting of the government. In particular, do not assume that the government will get things right as far as your benefits. An application may be denied at first, but similar to health insurance, it may be only because you didn’t provide the correct paperwork (the Veterans Administration calls it “supporting evidence”). Consequently, it is essential that you have all of the records listed above ready for action.
You deserve your Veterans Benefits, but it may take some old-fashioned elbow grease and a gung-ho attitude to get the job done.
GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!
Maintaining a complete set of military service records and information is extremely important for veterans and their families when applying for benefits and making claims with the VA, as well as other government agencies. It is also important for your family to know about and have access to these records when you pass on for burial benefits; and a veteran’s loved ones may be eligible for the veteran’s survivor benefits.
These important military records include: (i) the discharge certificate (DD214) or WW II equivalent [Each retiree or veteran who served on active duty for more than 90 days is entitled to a Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.]; and (ii) any VA documents with a VA claim number. All veterans should keep these documents in a safe place and make sure family members know their location.
Keeping a record of important documents is a terrific idea for everyone. This should start with a household inventory. An inventory of your tangible items is comprised of things like real estate, business records, automobile and other vehicle information; information on your pets, and any collectibles, to include heirlooms and mementos. An inventory of non-physical items should include insurance policies and their beneficiaries, financial information [sources of income, investments, debts and/or expenses], and finally, access codes, combinations and keys. You may think about safeguarding copies of these documents in a safe deposit box or a fireproof/waterproof safe in your home. Here is a sample document inventory:
• Adoption papers, birth and death certificates
• Advance directives
• Automobile titles/bills of sale
• Church records
• Citizenship papers
• Contracts of importance
• Household inventory
• Life insurance policies
• List of all insurance policies
• Marriage and divorce decrees
• Military discharge papers
• Patents and copyrights
• Powers of attorney
• Property deeds/mortgage papers
• Savings bonds
• Savings/investment certificates
• Social Security cards
• Stock and bond certificates
Prepare a “Grab and Go Kit”
With a similar idea in mind, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests what they call an “Emergency Financial First Aid Kit.” This is designed to help you and your loved ones remain financially stable if there were an emergency. The First Aid Kit helps you to select important financial records. You should keep the documents organized and with your other emergency supplies [food, water, radio, flashlight, etc.]. The items you should have in the kit include originals or copies of many of the same documents listed above, but also include:
• Driver’s license, membership numbers and credit cards;
• A recent income tax return;
• A list of your prescriptions with the medication, dosage and pharmacy;
• Bank, credit union and credit card account numbers; and
• Contact information for family members and friends, employers and financial and legal advisors.
• Also consider including your computer user names/passwords; a CD with relevant personal, financial and legal files; and emergency cash.
Ken H. Vanway, Jr.
The Vanway Law Firm
1110 R.R. 620 South, Suite B
Lakeway, TX 78734
Phone: 512-263-2886 Fax: 512-263-0189
This Firm specializes in many areas of estate planning including:
• Defensive asset protection
• Traditional Wills, Living Trusts, Life Insurance Trusts, Family Limited Partnerships, Limited Liability Companies, Charitable Trusts, Private Foundations, and Medicaid Planning.
Ken is a Board Certified attorney specialized in Estate Planning and Probate Law (Texas Board of Legal Specialization).
• J.D. – South Texas College of Law, Houston, Texas
• BBA – Texas A&M University
Note: Nothing in this publication is intended or written to be used, and cannot be used by any person for the purpose of avoiding tax penalties regarding any transactions or matters addressed herein. You should always seek advice from independent tax advisors regarding the same. [See IRS Circular 230.]