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September 2, 2014

Five Years Late, Veterans Administration Pays $3,000

Staff Attorney Darren Jones is a member of HSLDA’s litigation team, which helps homeschool families who are facing legal challenges. He and his wife homeschool.
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Earlier this month, the Veterans Administration finally transferred long-overdue benefits to an HSLDA member family. “Happy Dance! Money deposited to our account yesterday!” the family wrote to us in an email.

The payment brought an end to a five-year-long dispute over the family’s veteran’s benefits. The father is a disabled veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. Because of his disability, he is entitled to benefits from both Social Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs. These benefits also extended to his dependent daughter.

Under Social Security and VA rules, the daughter was still eligible for these benefits after she turned 18, as long as she was a full-time student. When she turned 18 in December 2008, she was being homeschooled through high school. Despite this, the Social Security Department and the VA cut off her benefits. The family contacted HSLDA for assistance.

We were able to get the Social Security benefits restored quickly. The VA benefits, however, were a different story.

Denying Claims

The VA has a 15-year history of denying dependent benefits to homeschool students who turn 18 before they graduate from high school. The VA’s general counsel even issued an opinion in 1998 which claimed that homeschool students weren’t eligible for benefits.

Thankfully, HSLDA defeated the VA in the 2004 case In the Appeal of George R. Theiss. The VA finally acknowledged that homeschooled students could be eligible for dependent benefits—although it took three more years to change its regulations.

In spite of their new regulations, however, the VA refused to recognize our member’s daughter as a student because she was homeschooling. HSLDA assisted the member family in submitting records of the daughter’s 12th grade homeschool program, which included tutoring by her mother (who is a certified teacher), many co-op classes, and a number of science classes, including advanced biology and forensic anatomy.

The VA then demanded proof that the Oklahoma education department had approved the homeschool. HSLDA responded that this request was not required by either Oklahoma or federal law.

The dispute dragged on. The daughter graduated high school in December 2009, entered college the next month, and started receiving VA benefits as a college student. But she had missed an entire year of benefits as a homeschool student.

No Response

Over the next two years, HSLDA wrote to the VA many times, but never received a response. It was frustrating. We couldn’t reach the VA on the phone, and it felt like we were throwing the letters into a black hole. And without a formal denial of benefits, we couldn’t send the issue to a judge.

In 2013, HSLDA Director of Federal Relations William Estrada stepped up to the plate with a new idea. We reached out to the family’s congressman and asked his staff to intervene. A representative from the congressman’s office agreed, and wrote to the VA on the member’s behalf. The VA responded that it had received all necessary information and was processing the application for benefits, but due to work on Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome reimbursement, the claim was going slowly.

A couple of months later, a VA agent finally called us and said the family’s daughter would be counted as a student. But when the agent called the family, she only talked about college benefits, not high school.

We asked the congressman’s office to contact the VA again. This time, they encountered the same black hole we had been facing for years. The VA did not respond.

When the congressman’s office contacted the VA for the third time, the VA told them that the member could use its website to resubmit the claim. Unfortunately, the website was useless for that purpose—it covered only dependents under 23, and after fighting the VA for years, the daughter was over 23. In fact, she had graduated from college and was now married!

Next Level

It was time for more pressure. At our instruction, the family contacted their senator. When the senator personally wrote to the VA, his office received a quick response: “We have received previous inquiries on this matter. It remains pending at this time.”

Later that day, the VA sent a rather disingenuous follow-up: “We asked [the veteran] to provide documentation indicating that the home school program is approved by the authority established within the State for determining educational standards.” It also claimed that since the daughter had taken college benefits, she couldn’t receive high school benefits.

We quickly sent a follow-up letter to the senator, explaining the lengthy history of the case and detailing the VA’s missteps. A copy of the letter was sent to the VA.

Less than three weeks later, the VA caved. On August 6, 2014, five-and-a-half years after initiating the claim, the daughter finally received a deposit for the entire 2009 school year.

“Thank you so much for your help. I will write the representative and the senators expressing our appreciation,” her mother wrote us the next day. “Thank you again for all your dedication and patience working on our claim with the VA. I got discouraged and disgusted, but never defeated! There is no way we could have fought this battle without your experience and HSLDA’s resources. The home school community is blessed to have this organization working for the rights of home school families.”

We were glad to help this member family secure their rightful benefits. HSLDA thanks our veterans for their service to our country!

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