New Ruling Could Extend Educational Benefits For Veterans By A Full Year

Veterans may see an extra year of tuition assistance and expanded educational benefits if a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is upheld.

The court ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs practice of allowing vets to claim either Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits or Montgomery GI Bill benefits, but not both, was unfair.

The VA maintains that the practice keeps vets from duplicating benefits. When a veteran applies for one GI Bill, they are required to relinquish their eligibility for the other. But the language that dictates that process may need some clarification.

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A new rule could allow veterans to receive benefits from two GI Bill programs, if they are eligible.

According to the Military Times, the judicial panel on the appeals court contends that “someone may not receive assistance from more than one program during a single month, semester, or other applicable pay period, but may switch freely between programs.”

Veterans who are eligible for both GI Bills should benefit from both, the court ruled, though they would still not be able to receive payouts from both at the same time.

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Previous rules required veterans to relinquish rights to one set of benefits if they chose another.

Veterans who served at least three years on active-duty after Sept. 10, 2001, are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides 36 months of tuition assistance and living stipends. On enlisting, service members may also choose to pay into the Montgomery GI Bill program, drawing on its smaller, standardized stipend for 36 months after discharge if they have served on active duty for at least three years.

The payouts being larger with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans often relinquish their Montgomery program benefits when it’s time to choose which to draw from, despite paying into the program during their service.

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Many veterans have paid into the Montgomery GI Bill program, but never drawn benefits from it.

Rather than end the Montgomery GI Bill completely, attorneys like Hunton Andrews Kurth Associate and Army veteran Tim McHugh have pressed the VA to offer benefits from both GI Bills to those veterans who qualify for both. Any veteran who has served on active duty for six years, for example, shouldn’t have to sign half their benefits away when they want to attend school, McHugh says.

“As long as they have enough time to qualify, if they have the service they should get the benefits,” he said. “And they should be free to use it.”

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This new rule could extend educational benefits a full year for some veterans.

McHugh used the story of a federal counterterrorism agent, named in court documents as simply “BO,” to illustrate the problematic situations that arise when veterans may be eligible for both programs, and are forced to relinquish their claim to one.

“After an initial period of enlisted military service, he attended college on the Montgomery GI Bill, then returned to the Army as a commissioned officer. In 2015, he applied for post-9/11 benefits based on his commissioned service so that he could attend Yale Divinity School and then become an Army chaplain,” states a release from Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP and Dominion Energy.

“But based on its misreading of the law, the VA forced BO to forfeit his remaining Montgomery benefits and limited his post-9/11 benefits to the amount of the forfeited benefits. The VA rejected his repeated calls to correct its error, forcing him to appeal its decision. During the lengthy appellate process, BO had to give up his Yale admission and became ineligible to return to the Army because of his age, but he continued to press his appeal to receive the correct amount of benefits, and, more importantly to him, for the benefit of all veterans.”

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Veterans may qualify for both the Post-9/11 GI Bill or Montgomery GI Bill programs.

“BO urges the VA to take immediate, affirmative action not only to correct his educational entitlements, but also to identify the many veterans impacted by the court’s decision and notify them of the restoration of their hard-earned benefits,”

The appeals court’s Judge Margaret Bartley gave the sole dissenting opinion in the ruling, arguing that allowing veterans to be eligible for two sets of educational benefits “demonstrates a misunderstanding” of how those benefits work.

“There is no indication, based on the text of the relevant statutes, that Congress intended this outcome or that it is more veteran-friendly,” Bartley wrote.

The VA is expected to either incorporate or refuse the appeals court’s ruling in the coming weeks, potentially forcing a rewrite of some longstanding rules.

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