The Advocacy Network
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People seeking benefits from the federal government often have to hire attorneys. However, claimants seeking VA benefits can rely on a national network of lay advocates—post officers, county and state veterans’ service officers, and service officers who work (locally or nationally) for a veterans service organization. All of these people can help claimants in obtaining VA benefits. These lay advocates are prohibited by law from charging a claimant a fee.
Some of these advocates are staff in “posts” established by national service organizations. Many of these posts have a post service officer or chapter service coordinator who provides claimants with basic information and claims forms. In most instances, the national service organization prohibits their post service officers from dealing with the VA directly. This policy makes sense because post service officers usually do not have the training and support that is available to the service organizations’ more knowledgeable accredited service officers.
Every advocate’s first rule should be to “do no harm.” Inaccurate or bad advice from an advocate can cost a veteran time and money. In some cases, an advocate who gives bad advice may be liable to the claimant.
In general, post service officers should provide information and support, and refer the claimant to an accredited service officer. In fact, post service officers should send all applications and communications from claimants they are helping to the accredited service officer who is representing the veteran, not to the VA. They should advise veterans to contact the service officer before communicating with or responding to letters or phone calls from the VA.
Most states have state departments of veterans affairs. These organizations may employ service officers who usually represent veterans before VA regional offices (ROs). The VA allows all state departments of veterans affairs to represent veterans. Some service officers working for state departments of veterans affairs represent claimants on behalf of national service organizations, when accredited by those organizations.
County service officers (sometimes called county directors of veterans affairs) provide a variety of services. In a few states there are no state service officers, just county service officers who provide services similar to those offered elsewhere by state or national service officers. In other states, county service officers take information and pass it along to state or national organization service officers.
To represent a veteran, a service officer, attorney, or claims agent must have a signed power of attorney from the veteran. In most cases, an individual service officer does not represent claimants for VA benefits as an individual. Most claimants for VA benefits sign a power of attorney in favor of the organization that employs or has accredited the individual service officer. Therefore, the power of attorney usually permits any accredited representatives of the named service organization, not just the individual service officer, to represent the veteran. On the other hand, attorneys and claims agents must represent claimants as an individual, because a law firm as an entity cannot represent a VA claimant.
It is a service officer’s job as a veterans advocate to present information and, if necessary, supporting arguments. If the service officer is not prepared to argue for the claimant, another advocate should be involved in the representation.
Advocates are entitled to—and should—screen information the veteran is considering sending to the VA. The advocate is not obliged to send negative evidence to the VA unless the VA specifically requests that information.
Most national service organizations provide representation before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA). In fact, most national service organizations have advocates located in Washington, D.C., who review appeals submitted to the BVA and provide additional arguments (and sometimes help claimants obtain additional evidence).