What does VA accreditation mean?
Generally, for anyone to assist another with a specific claim for VA benefits – even if it is being done free of charge – he/she must be accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Assistance includes preparation, presentation, and prosecution of a specific claim for benefits. Per the VA’s Pension Benefits Fact Sheet, accreditation is supposed to mean that an individual can provide responsible, qualified representation of a claimant, although the VA also states on its website that accreditation, “does not imply that a representative is qualified to provide financial planning services or is otherwise endorsed by VA” (http://www.va.gov/ogc/accreditation.asp). There is an exception to this requirement: The VA will allow an individual to represent a claimant one time without accreditation, which is often the situation when an adult child helps a parent file for benefits. Finally, accreditation is not required when claimants represents themselves – in other words, a claim can be fully processed without anyone representing the claimant at any point in the process.
There are three categories of individuals whom the VA will accredit: representatives of VA-recognized Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), independent claims agents, and private attorneys. The route to accreditation differs for these various categories, but the governing department of all accreditation matters is the VA’s Office of General Counsel (VAOGC). It is this department that handles any questions, comments, and requests for correction of information related to accreditation as well as receiving any complaints regarding misconduct or incompetent representation.
Who needs to be accredited in the law firm?
Any attorney in a law firm who assists with specific claims for VA benefits must be accredited. Employees of an attorney, however, cannot be accredited. This includes law students, interns, paralegals, and legal assistants. Those employees may assist with claims as long as it is under the direct supervision of the accredited attorney and with the specific written consent of the claimant. For this reason, it is recommended that you include in your VA legal services agreements language that the claimant agrees that all attorneys and staff members employed by your law firm may assist with the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of the VA claim and authorizes specifically named staff members to work on the file.
How do you get accredited?
Representatives of VA-recognized VSOs have a certifying official within their organization who handles accreditation internally. Attorneys and independent claims agents have slightly different paths to accreditation. There is an initial accreditation process that begins with completing and filing a VA Form 21a with any supporting documentation or supplementary pages as needed to the VAOGC. This form asks about employment status and history, educational background, criminal history, some medical information, and character references. The VAOGC reviews the submission for evidence of “good moral character and reputation,” as stated in this form’s instructions, to determine fitness for practice before the VA. An attorney applicant who is in good standing with any state bar will then receive accreditation with the stipulation of having to complete a qualifying three-hour CLE course within 12 months of initial accreditation. However, claims agent applicants must jump through an additional hoop in the form of a written exam administered by the VA on which they must get a score of at least 75%.
The FAQs listed on the back of the How to Apply for VA Accreditation Fact Sheet state that it takes attorneys between 60 to 120 days to complete initial accreditation. In contrast, due to the need to pass a qualifying examination, claim agent applications may take an average of one year to process fully. Attorneys are also required to maintain their accreditation every year by submitting a letter to the VA affirming that he/she is still in good standing with the state bar, and every two years by completing an additional three-hour CLE course pertaining to the VA.
Benefits/limitations of accreditation
The value of accreditation is that it is required to represent claimants in regards to their claims for VA pension benefits. And when you represent the claimant, you have the most control over the claim in what can seem an uncontrollable process. As accredited agent or attorney, you can call the VA for claim status inquiries and you should be copied on all correspondence that is addressed to the claimant. If a family member represents the claimant or the claimant represents themselves, you depend on the family to let you know what the VA has requested in a timely fashion.
While it is recommended that an attorney not assist with a VA claim until he/she is fully accredited, if a VA claim were to be filed by an unaccredited attorney with the VA form 21-22a Appointment of Individual as Claimant’s Representative, the VA will “contact the claimant and advise him or her that VA will not recognize the unaccredited attorney as the representative of record until he or she is accredited. VA will advise the claimant that he or she may (1) seek other representation, or (2) proceed without representation until the attorney is accredited,” per the VA’s Accreditation FAQ. Although potentially embarrassing, ultimately the VA would not reject a VA claim because it was filed with the VA Form 21-22a of an unaccredited attorney.
There are limitations to the use of VA accreditation. You can’t use your accreditation status to advertise or in any way suggest that you are a VA-approved or VA-preferred provider. If the VA finds that an agent or attorney is using VA accreditation for an improper purpose, the individual’s accreditation may be suspended or canceled.
Checking accreditation status
You can check your accreditation status at any time, or even when awaiting notification of initial accreditation, by consulting the searchable list of accredited representatives, agents, and attorneys at the Office of the General Counsel website: http://www.va.gov/ogc/apps/accreditation/index.asp. You are warned, however, that this list is not always updated regularly. If you have any doubts, it is recommended that you email and/or fax your inquiry to the VAOGC for the most current accreditation status.
Veterans Administration Office of General Counsel
Address:Office of the General Counsel (022D)
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20420
Fax: (202) 273-0197
Did you know we offer a complimentary VA Tech School webinar on the first Wednesday of each month. Join us on Wednesday, July 6th at 12 EST. You can register here:https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/rt/3181521930337595395
Victoria L. Collier, Veteran of the United States Air Force, 1989-1995 and United States Army Reserves, 2001-2004. Victoria is a Certified Elder Law Attorney through the National Elder Law Foundation; Author of “47 Secret Veterans Benefits for Seniors”; Author of “Paying for Long Term Care: Financial Help for Wartime Veterans: The VA Aid & Attendance Benefit”; Founder of The Elder & Disability Law Firm of Victoria L. Collier, PC; Co-Founder of Lawyers with Purpose; and Co-Founder of Veterans Advocate Group of America.