Today’s veterans, Family members and health care providers are keenly aware of post traumatic stress disorder and the importance in veterans seeking help. Unfortunately, many veterans suffer in silence, which not only hurts them, but their Families as well, and in ways they may not realize.
One of the touchiest subjects to discuss with veterans and their Families is the risk of suicide and its potential financial impact outside of the emotional toll such an act takes on Family members. No one wants to think of financial matters when it comes to a suicide that may never happen, but it is important for all involved to understand when it comes to VA survivor benefits.
VA provides dependency and indemnity to surviving spouses and/or minor children of a veteran who dies on active duty or of a service-connected disability. In most cases, dependents are eligible even if the veteran never filed for the service-connected condition, with the exception of suicide.
For example, Vietnam veterans are entitled to service-connected disability compensation for a variety of diseases presumed by VA to be related to exposure to Agent Orange if they are diagnosed any time in their life. If they die of a “presumptive” condition (such as lung cancer) but never filed a claim for it, the surviving spouse can still be awarded dependency and indemnity benefits.
However, to be awarded dependency and indemnity for a mental health-related suicide, the veteran must have filed a claim and been granted service service-connected disability compensation. If no claim was ever filed, survivors will not qualify for dependency and indemnity.
The Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) 38, 3.302 (3), covers service connection for mental unsoundness in suicide and reads: “It is a constant requirement for favorable action that the precipitating mental unsoundness be service connected.” Otherwise, a mental health condition could conceivably be a result of any number of circumstances that have nothing to do with active-duty service.
In addition, even if a veteran is service-connected for PTSD, for example, and commits suicide, dependency and indemnity is not necessarily automatic, though favorable action is likely. CFR 38.302 reads: (2)”The act of suicide or a bona fide attempt is considered to be evidence of mental unsoundness. Therefore, where no reasonable adequate motive for suicide is shown by the evidence, the act will be considered to have resulted from mental unsoundness. (3) A reasonable adequate motive for suicide may be established by affirmative evidence showing circumstances which could lead a rational person to self-destruction.”
This sounds cold-hearted because you may think no one in their “right mind” would ever commit suicide. However, there may be some cases where suicide is committed by someone of “sound mind.” In that case, it can be seen as a circumstance that “could lead a rational person to self-destruction.”
I have seen just one case where a spouse of a veteran service-connected for PTSD who committed suicide was denied dependency and indemnity. VA denied because they reasoned it was not the PTSD that drove the veteran to suicide but other factors, as the veteran, prior to his suicide, had told his psychiatrist that he was doing better. This case is now under appeal, and I am confident the surviving spouse will ultimately be granted dependency and indemnity benefits. It is just unfortunate that a difficult circumstance is made more so by various rules and regulations that may be hard to understand.