The long-awaited PACT Act expands the Department of Veteran Affairs’ list of presumptive service-connected conditions. Designed to provide additional benefits for toxin-related injuries, veterans and their families could receive much-needed relief. PACT Act survivor benefits could include recurring monthly payments and enhanced Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
Understanding the PACT Act
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2022. It broadly expands the Department of Veteran Affairs health care and compensation eligibility for former servicepeople who were exposed to certain toxins while serving in the United States military.
For the purposes of the PACT Act, toxins include the following substances:
- Burn pit emissions and debris
- Agent Orange
However, the legislation is intentionally ambiguous, providing the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) with the necessary discretion to accommodate other exposure-related injuries. It also introduces a range of critical changes to existing agency policy. These changes include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- The recognition of more than 20 toxin exposure-related presumptive conditions.
- The addition of more sites and theaters as presumptive-exposure locations for Agent Orange and radiation.
- The establishment of free toxic exposure screening programs at VA hospitals across the country.
The PACT Act extends benefits to both living veterans and the surviving spouses and dependent children of servicepeople who have passed away.
Establishing Eligibility for PACT Act Survivors Benefits
The PACT Act details many toxin exposure-related conditions that are now considered presumptive. However, only certain family members of a deceased veteran may apply for PACT Act survivors’ benefits. They include:
- Their spouse
- The dependent child or children
- The dependent parent or parents
The payment of any benefit, such as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, is often contingent on the confluence of several different factors.
PACT Act Benefits for Surviving Spouses
Surviving spouses, for instance, must establish that either of the following conditions are met:
- The surviving spouse lived with the veteran continuously and without interruption until the veteran’s death; or
- The surviving spouse was legally separated from the veteran and wasn’t found at fault for the separation.
They must also be able to demonstrate one of the following conditions exists:
- The surviving spouse married the veteran within 15 years of their qualifying discharge, during which the presumptive PACT Act-related condition was either diagnosed or exacerbated.
- The surviving spouse was married to the veteran for at least one year.
- The surviving spouse had a child with the veteran.
While any PACT Act-related benefit is contingent on the provision of evidence, surviving spouses, parents, and dependent children often struggle to meet the VA’s requirements. For instance, applicants are often required to furnish proof relating both to the veteran’s service history and their own relationship to the veteran.
The PACT Act and Survivors Benefits
The PACT Act has significantly expanded the scope of toxin exposure-related survivors’ benefits. Under the act’s provisions, a deceased veteran’s surviving family members could be entitled to significant compensation—even if they had previously submitted a claim and were denied. Compensation can be used for a variety of purposes, including the following:
- Funeral fees and other burial expenses
- Education and training
- Health care
However, the PACT Act’s most critical changes relate to survivors’ eligibility for accrued and recurring payments. These include the following types of benefits:
Monthly Dependency and Indemnity Compensation Payments
VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments are tax-free benefits provided to the surviving child, spouse, or parent of a veteran who was either killed in the line of duty or died from a service-connected injury or illness. The VA has established several different categories for DIC beneficiaries. These categories determine their payment amount and are typically dependent on the beneficiary’s relationship with the deceased veteran.
For example, benefits may be available for surviving:
- Spouses. The surviving spouse of a veteran who died on or after January 1, 1993, could receive between $1,562.74 per month and $3,388.03 per month.
- Children. The VA awards DIC benefits to the surviving adult and minor children of deceased servicepeople. Payments typically range between $327.99 and $659.83 monthly.
- Parents. DIC benefits can be awarded to surviving parents. Under most circumstances, a parent’s eligibility is assessed in accordance with their own income. Payments can be as low as $5 per month, or as high as several hundred dollars per month.
One-Time Accrued Benefits Payments
A one-time accrued benefits payment is compensation for benefits that were due, but never paid, before a veteran or other beneficiary’s death. The VA typically awards one-time accrued benefits payments to the deceased veteran’s surviving family members.
A VA Survivors Pension is a program that awards recurring benefits to a deceased veteran’s surviving spouse and dependent children. Under current federal law, an applicant may receive a VA Survivors Pension if their veteran served in any of the following modern conflicts:
- Mexican Border War
- World War I
- World War II
- The Korean War
- The Vietnam War and related conflicts
- The Gulf War and related conflicts
Survivors Pensions, like all other PACT Act-related benefits, are only awarded if the applicant is able to furnish evidence of the veteran’s service and presumed exposure to burn pits or other toxic contaminants.
Filing a Compelling Claim for Survivors’ Benefits
The PACT Act provides families with an opportunity to file a claim for retroactive benefits, including benefits that were previously denied. However, obtaining fair compensation is rarely easy. Despite marked improvements in its efficiency and processing times, the Department of Veteran Affairs is still a bureaucracy beholden to complicated policies and procedures.
An experienced veterans’ law attorney could help you make the most of a VA DIC or other benefits claim by:
- Exploring your eligibility for different survivors’ benefits programs, including pensions, accrued payments, and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
- Helping you obtain a loved one’s service records.
- Reviewing a veteran’s health history.
- Filing a claim for benefits or an appeal for denied benefits.
- Communicating with Department of Veteran Affairs officials on your behalf.