Mary is seventy years old, recently recovered from breast cancer, and currently providing care for her mother and adult disabled son on an extremely limited income. In May of 2021, Mary* received a letter from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The letter informed Mary that she was no longer qualified to receive her deceased husband’s pension. It also notified her that she had been overpaid more than $85,000.00, a debt that she now owed to the VA. The letter was confusing and unclear about if and how Mary could contest the VA’s decision. It also did not give any information about why a Mary no longer qualified for the pension payments.
Mary knew she needed help but, due to her income, her options were limited. In August of 2021, Mary sought help at SALSA’s Veterans Legal Advice Clinic. Mary was not originally looking for someone to assist in contesting the letter, she simply sought help in understanding the contents of the letter. Unless intimately familiar with VA processes and procedures, the information contained in a “VA Decision Letter” can appear cryptic and complicated. Additionally, Mary’s primary language is Spanish so her extremely limited proficiency in English created an additional barrier for her to navigate the process since the VA sends its correspondence in English only.
At the advice clinic, Mary met with an attorney who was able to explain the VA’s decision regarding the pension and debt determinations, and walked Mary through her options to appeal the determination and seek waiver of the debt. Mary’s case was ultimately referred for extended representation with SALSA so that Mary could have assistance seeking relief from the significant debt she was now facing. From August of 2021 until December of 2021, SALSA staff and Moody Fellows from St. Mary’s University Law School developed a record reflective of the statutory issues and VA procedures which led to the termination of benefits and calculation of debt and submitted arguments on her behalf. In June of 2022, Mary received two letters from the VA informing her: (1) the annual pension benefit of $3,931 was reinstated; and (2) the overpayment debt of $85,464 was being waived by the VA. Although the process ultimately took 10 months, the outcome was exactly what was advocated for by her legal team and was necessary for a fair and just outcome.
*Name changed to protect client identity