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13.4. Self-Filing Good Practices
A claimant who decides to file his or her own claim can improve the chances of a smooth experience by considering some good practices that have proven to be useful by other self-filers. Not all of these suggestions will apply in every case, but many will. Also, anyone who is considering handling his or her own claim but finds these suggestions are too difficult or time consuming to follow should carefully consider whether self-filing is the right choice for them.
- Never, never, never send VA original documents. VA loses documents all the time and it makes no difference who lost an original if it is needed to support a claim if the authenticity of a copy is questioned.
- The only way to prove that a mailed document reaches VA is to send it by "certified" mail with a "return receipt" requested or use some other traceable method such as Fedex or UPS. Although these are more expensive than regular mail, regular mail provides no proof that VA actually received what you sent and if a document is not in the C-file, the claimant, not VA, suffers unless proof of delivery exists.
- Always make and save a complete copy of everything sent to VA. Combined with the proof of delivery, this is the only way to protect against VA losing a document and the claimant being penalized.
- Obtain the latest version of the VA form for the benefit sought from the VA website or a VA regional office.
- Although an application filed with supporting documents is usually the best way to start a claim, it is not necessary to delay an application to gather all information that may be required to support an award. If you believe that you may be eligible for VA benefits, file an application as soon as possible because benefits, if awarded, generally start paying from the first day of the month after the application was filed.
- If any of the following documents are available or can be obtained without a long delay, it is best to attach copies to the initial application: (1) discharge or separation papers (DD214 form or equivalent); (2) dependency records (marriage license, children's birth certificates); (3) medical evidence (examination reports, doctor's statements, hospital records); (4) relevant service records (deck logs, accident reports, unit reports); and (5) "buddy" statements.
- Be sure to read the instructions for the Form 21-526 carefully. Double check that all information required on the form is provided and that it is accurately entered.
- File the completed form with the correct VA office generally the nearest VA regional office.
- Read all correspondence from VA completely and carefully. Important information, including short response times (30- or 60-days), is often found in obscure places.
- Respond to all VA requests for information as soon as possible. In most cases, if the requested information is not submitted within 12 months, VA will deem the claim to have been abandoned. Shorter response times (30- or 60-days) may also be required for certain responses.
- If VA requests medical information, submit medical records that accurately describe the condition and its history.
- Provide VA with the names and addresses of all medical service providers that may have records of treatment or diagnoses of the condition for which benefits are being sought. Consider contacting those providers and telling them that VA will be requesting records. Better yet, get copies of your medical records yourself and send copies to VA.
- If existing medical information does not properly describe the current medical condition, consider getting a new examination.
- If being treated by a medical professional for a condition, a claimant should ask the provider to write a letter for submission to VA describing the severity of the condition and its effect on the claimant's ability to work and on the daily activities of life.
Whatever else happens, a claimant should not hesitate to get help if he or she does not understand what the VA is requesting or if a claim is denied.