A disability rating, or impairment rating, is the percentage assigned to a veteran based on the combined severity of their service-connected disabilities. A former servicemember could have anywhere from a zero percent – or non-compensable rating – to 100 percent or total disability rating. There are some additional disability ratings that go above 100 percent based on special monthly compensation. The disability rating is an important part of the basis for whether a veteran may be awarded Total Disability based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU) benefits.
Any former servicemember who receives any type of disability rating may apply for TDIU, but the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) looks at the veteran’s overall percentage of impairment when determining whether they are going to award TDIU. If a veteran’s disability rating is under 70 percent, or 60 percent in some cases, they can still apply, but only extraschedular TDIU will be considered. Understanding the role of a disability rating in obtaining TDIU benefits can be made easier with the professional help and guidance of a lawyer from our firm.
The zero to 100 percent ratings are assigned in 10 percent intervals for each service-connected condition. Each disability may be rated at zero percent (non-compensable), or anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent, depending on the severity of the symptoms of that disability.
One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that VA uses a formula to determine a veteran’s overall disability rating. For example, a 30 percent rating and a 20 percent rating generally combine to receive a total rating of 40 percent, rather than the 50 percent that would be awarded if conditions were simply added together.
The disability ratings assigned by VA are part of a very old system called a rating schedule, which was designed many years ago to compensate veterans based on the average loss of earnings a condition has on employment. Even though many of the ratings do not make sense by today’s standards, that is still the way that VA rates disabilities overall. Fortunately, some of the disabilities have recently received updated rating criteria.
To qualify for total disability benefits, a veteran must be unable to maintain substantially gainful employment as a result of their service-connected disabilities. Substantially gainful employment is VA’s convoluted term for determining whether the work a veteran can do meets the standards for receiving entitlement to TDIU. This includes not only how much income a person might receive in a year (and whether that falls under the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold), but also how many hours they might work in a particular week, whether the employer has provided any accommodations, and how long a veteran has held a particular job.
The concept of “maintaining” employment is important because the ability to receive a job offer, or even to begin working, is different from maintaining that job for a reasonable period. This is why there are a lot of factors that VA looks at in terms of what it means to maintain substantially gainful employment. No matter what, it must only be service-connected disabilities that are considered for TDIU; the effect of other disabilities that are not service-connected on maintaining substantially gainful employment is irrelevant.
On a schedular basis, qualifying for TDIU requires either having a combined rating of 70 percent (with one disability rated at 40 percent or higher), or having a single disability rated at 60 percent or higher. If you apply for TDIU but do not meet the schedular criteria, VA will decide whether extraschedular consideration is warranted. However, it is much more difficult to obtain TDIU on an extraschedular basis, as one of the main factors VA considers is the overall disability rating and the combined effects of service-connected conditions.
The disabilities that serve as the basis for obtaining a TDIU rating must be service-connected; conditions which are not related to military service cannot be considered. This is why qualifying for TDIU can oftentimes be more difficult than qualifying for Social Security disability insurance, or SSDI, since all disabilities can be considered under that program.
However, since VA allows for secondary service connection as well as direct service connection, if a veteran has one disability that causes another, even though the second disability is not directly related to service, entitlement to service connection can also be established for that second disability. Common examples include an ankle injury that later causes a knee or hip injury, or a disease such as Parkinson’s, which often has multiple residuals.
Over the years, those disabilities may get worse, and together they can serve as the basis for a TDIU rating. As noted above, all disabilities considered for TDIU must be service-connected, but it does not matter if they are service-connected on a direct or secondary basis.
Navigating this complex system can be extremely challenging without qualified legal counsel. For this reason, you should consider speaking with one of VetLaw’s diligent attorneys.
A member of our team can assist you by reviewing your current disability ratings, reviewing the evidence in your VA claims file, and determining if further development should occur prior to applying for TDIU benefits in order to help you avoid some of the pitfalls associated with the application and appeals processes. Call our firm today to learn more about the role of a disability rating in obtaining TDIU benefits.