The VA rates disabilities on a percentage scale, with higher ratings providing additional compensation. However, it is rare for someone to receive a 100% disability rating.
Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU) benefits provides extra compensation for Veterans with service-connected disabilities that have left them unable to work. Someone who is approved for TDIU receives disability benefits at the same level as someone assigned a 100% disability rating—even if the VA would not otherwise consider them to be 100% disabled.
Gathering Evidence for a TDIU Claim
You may think that it’s obvious how your condition is preventing you from working, but the VA requires specific proof before awarding benefits. Taking the time to thoroughly document every aspect of your claim will drastically increase your chances of being awarded TDIU benefits.
Documentation of Earnings
You will need to submit proof of your income with your TDIU application. In order to qualify based on earnings, you must be earning less than the federal poverty level for one person. This number changes each year but is typically slightly over $12,000.
If your earnings are over the federal poverty level, you are not automatically disqualified. However, the VA will then look closely at your work environment to determine if you are receiving special accommodations above and beyond what is required by law under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Statements from the doctors you have seen carry a lot of weight in a TDIU claim. Medical opinions should discuss specific ways in which your condition affects your ability to earn a living. For example, if you are applying for benefits based on back pain, a medical opinion might discuss the difficulties you have in sitting, standing, walking, and lifting. Or, if you are applying for benefits based on a mental health condition such as PTSD, your care provider might describe your trouble concentrating and severe anxiety.
You must provide a full work history to the VA so a determination can be made as to what type of job you could reasonably be expected to obtain. Since many disabilities affect a person’s ability to perform physical labor, the VA is often looking to determine if you could obtain a sedentary office position given your past work experience, skills, and training.
If your earnings classify your work as substantially gainful employment, you must be able to show that you work in a sheltered or protected work environment. This means that you are receiving special accommodations because of your disability, such as longer break times, a flexible schedule, or reduced work responsibilities. Often, Veterans working in a protected work environment are self-employed, working at a family business, or employed by a close friend who understands the difficulty of being a disabled Veteran.
Opinions From Vocational Experts
A vocational expert can look at your medical records and work history to offer a more complete picture of your limitations. For example, a basic criterion for sedentary work is that someone must be able to lift at least 10 pounds. If you are only able to lift five pounds, this can be used to support your claim that you are unable to engage in any type of substantially gainful employment.
Vocational experts can be particularly valuable for claims involving psychiatric disorders. An expert can discuss how your reliability, productivity, and concentration compare to someone who is employed in a competitive work environment.
Social Security Determinations
Often, Veterans who are seeking TDIU benefits have already applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). If you’ve been approved for either of these programs, you can use this as evidence to support your claim of unemployability. However, you should keep in mind that these programs use different criteria to determine if someone is able to work. The VA is only allowed to consider your service-connected disabilities, while the Social Security Administration (SSA) can consider your non-service connected disabilities as well as your age when determining if you are eligible for benefits. This means it’s possible to be eligible for SSDI or SSI and still not qualify for TDIU.
Lay statements are statements provided to the VA that convey evidence otherwise not presented in an application. For example, you might have your spouse submit a statement that describes the ways in which your condition affects your daily routine, or a former coworker describe how you had to leave your last position because you were unable to perform key responsibilities due to your disability. You can submit as many lay statements with your application as you would like, although statements should be as specific as possible to ensure they are not deemed vague or irrelevant by the VA.
How We Can Help
The process of applying for disability benefits is notorious for being time-consuming and complex. VA disability law is constantly changing—making it easy for a layperson to make mistakes that could sabotage an otherwise valid claim.
The office of Sean Kendall, Attorney-at-Law, has more than 20 years of experience helping Colorado Veterans access the benefits they earned while serving our country. Call or fill out the contact form on this page to schedule a free, no-obligation initial consultation to learn how to best support your claim for TDIU and navigate the appeals process with confidence.