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A Survivor’s Guide to Claiming the VA Benefits You’re Owed

The system is complicated. Here’s how to navigate it

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Surviving family members of veterans and service members are eligible to receive a range of VA benefits such as health care, funding for education, monetary compensation and assistance with burial costs.

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Figuring out how to access VA benefits for survivors can be complicated and confusing because each of the many benefit types has its own eligibility and application requirements.

Here’s how to learn about what you can claim and how to apply.

Health care

For spouses and dependent children, and surviving spouses and children

There are several health care benefits for family members of veterans and service members. The main health care program is Tricare, run by the Department of Defense. Those not eligible for Tricare may qualify for the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA), a cost-sharing program run by the VA.

There are additional programs related to service-connected disabilities, including the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC), which provides a range of benefits for caregivers.

The VA keeps a handy page with links to each program. To get Tricare benefits, first check eligibility, and then make sure you and your family members are registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS).

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Monetary benefits 

For surviving spouses, children or parents

Surviving family members of a service member who died in the line of duty or of a veteran who died from a service-related injury or illness may be eligible to receive tax-free cash assistance known as VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (VA DIC). The amount you can get depends on the type of survivor you are. How to apply also depends, with a different form required for each scenario. Learn how to apply on the VA’s DIC page.

Some surviving spouses and children of a veteran who served during wartime may also be eligible for monthly pension benefits. Read about eligibility on the VA’s Survivors Pension page.

Education and training 

For spouses and dependent children, and surviving spouses and children

The VA’s Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance Program (also called Chapter 35) is comprised of two G.I. Bill programs for veterans’ surviving spouses and dependents: The Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship (Fry Scholarship) and the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) program. These programs are for children and spouses of service members who died in the line or duty or from a service-related condition, and in the case of the DEA, disabled veterans.

Consult the VA’s overview page of education benefits to see more specific eligibility information and to find links to application information for these programs.  

Home loan programs 

For surviving spouses

Spouses of service members and veterans who have died in specific circumstances or are missing in action may be eligible for a VA-backed veterans home loan to buy, build or refinance a home. Eligible surviving spouses can apply for a certificate of eligibility (COE) to prove to lenders that you can take advantage of VA home loan programs.

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Check out the VA page on who is eligible for a COE is to see if you qualify. This page also tells you how to apply by filling out a Request for Determination of Loan Guaranty Eligibility — Unmarried Surviving Spouses (VA Form 26-1817) and submitting the veteran’s DD214 service records

Burial- and memorial-related benefits 

For current or surviving spouses, children, and parents

VA burial benefits are available to help service members, veterans and family members bury and memorialize someone in a VA national cemetery. This includes financial support with the proceedings, provision of memorial items and information about grief counseling. This benefit is available to surviving spouses, children and parents of service members. Learn more from the VA’s burial benefits page.

Surviving spouses and children of a service member may be eligible to be buried in a VA national cemetery. You can apply to determine your eligibility before you need to be buried. Follow the steps laid out on the pre-need eligibility page.

Bottom Line

With different eligibility requirements and varying application processes for each program, getting the most out of your VA benefits can be a challenge. Carefully review all information about each benefit and follow the application steps faithfully. If you need assistance, call the VA benefits hotline at 800-827-1000, or work with an accredited representative or veterans service officer (VSO), who are trained to help you navigate the system.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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