By Hook Law Center
The Department of Veterans Affairs has recently made significant progress in reducing its huge backlog of claims for disability compensation.
Since it peaked in March 2013, the backlog has been reduced from 611,000 to just under 401,000 — a 34 percent decrease. The agency also reported that it has concurrently increased its decision accuracy. The three-month average accuracy rate for complete claim files stands at 90 percent, an improvement of five percentage points and seven percentage points over the accuracy rates for 2011 and 2010, respectively.
In April 2013, the VA announced an initiative to expedite decisions on claims that had been pending for more than one year. The following month, the agency mandated 20 hours of overtime per month for all claims processors through the end of 2013. If funding permits, the VA anticipates a continuation of the mandatory overtime policy into 2014.
Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, reiterated the agency’s goal of eliminating its claims backlog by the end of 2015 and praised VA employees for their hard work.
The VA said that as it works to reduce its backlog, it will continue to focus on those veterans whose claims have been pending longest, who are homeless or terminally ill, who are former POWs, who are Medal of Honor recipients and on those who file fully-developed claims.
It is encouraging to see a coordinated effort to get benefits to our deserving veterans in a timely manner.
By Hook Law Center
A survey of over 1,000 parents of children with disabilities found that a majority of respondents have seen detrimental effects on their children’s special education services in the wake of recent budget cuts.
In 2013 alone, federal special education funding was reduced by $579 million as a result of budget sequestration — a process of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that began in March 2013 as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Among those parents who reported changes, nearly one third reported an increase in class size, 27 percent said their child’s school had fewer service providers and some 30 percent said their child’s services decreased. Further, 13 percent blamed budget cuts for a change in their child’s school placement.
The survey was conducted by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The group’s director of public policy, Lindsay Jones, said that service levels were changing based not on children’s needs, but on the availability of funds — and that such policies were contrary to the law.
Generally, previous polls concerning the effect of budget cuts have focused on the opinions of school administrators and other professionals. This survey is among the first to gauge parents’ perceptions.
Unless Congress intervenes to avert them, further across-the-board budget cuts are expected for 2014.
By Hook Law Center
A worker nearing retirement with an employer pension plan will usually need to decide between a single-life plan and a joint-and-survivor plan. The single-life plan terminates when the worker dies, and the joint-and-survivor plan continues for as long as either the worker or his or her spouse survives. Not surprisingly, the joint plan offers a lower monthly payment, because it has a longer expected payment period.
If the employee is likely to die first, a joint pension is usually the prudent choice. But some professionals will advocate a strategy known as “pension maximization,” or “pension max.” The strategy involves taking the higher single-life payout and using part or all of the extra income to purchase life insurance. If the employee dies first, the spouse gets a death benefit that, assuming proper planning, is large enough to generate the same income as a joint-and-survivor plan. If the spouse dies first, the worker cancels the life insurance and enjoys the higher income.
Pension max strategies often involve a combination of term and whole life insurance. If only term life were purchased, and both spouses survived beyond the term, additional life insurance would have to be purchased at that time, at an advanced age that would make the insurance quite expensive. On the other hand, it is also expensive to purchase whole life insurance on its own in quantities sufficient to afford the same quality of life as a pension.
In certain cases, a pension max strategy may make sense, but properly weighing the alternatives entails crunching a lot of numbers. When deciding what type of pension plan will work best for you, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.
By Hook Law Center
A private initiative to build a housing development for people with mental disabilities right here in Virginia Beach has stirred some controversy.
Debra Dear, 52, and her husband care for their 31-year-old daughter Lindsey, who has a chromosomal disorder, at their home in the Sandbridge area. Dear looked into housing options for Lindsey in anticipation of the day when she and her husband could no longer look after Lindsey. Finding the existing options lacking, she started a nonprofit organization in 2010 to build a development that met her vision of a safe and enabling environment for her daughter and others like her.
The initiative has received some $3 million in donations and secured a 75-acre plot of land near the intersection of Princess Anne and Sandbridge roads for the housing development, to be called Vanguard Landing. Later, in September, 2013, the city of Virginia Beach reached an informal agreement with the nonprofit to provide a $2.9 million loan at a favorable interest rate.
That agreement set off the controversy, because federal law requires publicly-funded programs for the disabled to provide their services in an integrated community setting whenever possible. Dear says the project, estimated to cost $32 to $40 million to build, will be privately funded and self-sustaining.
Virginia is in the midst of executing a settlement with the Justice Department requiring the state to close four of its five “training centers” – institutions for the developmentally and intellectually disabled – and move the residents to smaller facilities or regular homes. Some parents oppose the settlement, favoring the supervision and oversight of government-run facilities. Others argue that segregated and secluded settings offer less safety and opportunities for rehabilitation.
By Hook Law Center
Workers with defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, know that the value of their retirement savings can fluctuate with the ups and downs of the economy. The markets tend to grow savings in the long run, but nothing is certain.
In comparison, those with defined-benefit plans – pensions – tend to feel a lot more secure about their post-retirement income, and with good reason: pensions are reliable. Private pensions are insured by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, an independent government agency, and government pensions are considered rock-solid.
The city of Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing, however, might give those government pensioners and future pensioners pause. Pensions represent a huge and growing share of the city’s expenses that contributes significantly to its dire financial straits. If Detroit’s bankruptcy is allowed to continue – it is currently held up in court – it may very well mean that pension promises are broken and retirees’ benefits will be cut.
When planning for retirement, it is important to diversify your savings and your post-retirement income. No matter how large and reliable your pension, it should not constitute the entirety of your nest egg. Remember, many state and local government workers are not covered by Social Security.
If you have an option to contribute to a supplemental retirement plan, such as a 403(b) or 457(b) account, do so. If not, set up your own IRA, even if your contributions will not be tax-deductible. Consult with an estate planning attorney to decide on the right mix of contributions to pension funds and individual retirement accounts.
By Hook Law Center
Children with special needs and their advocates have made significant progress in their efforts to ensure that all children are afforded the opportunity to learn and thrive regardless of their abilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was an important milestone in this regard.
One area in which there is still work to be done is in the way children with special needs are enabled to play with their peers. Specifically, playgrounds are often completely impractical for children with physical disabilities. Their ground surfaces may be impossible for wheelchairs to roll over, and their play areas may not have activities appropriate for children lacking in upper-body mobility, strength, and balance.
Last year, accessibility standards for playgrounds were made mandatory under the ADA so that children of differing abilities could play alongside each other. They include rules on the types of equipment, designs, and materials used in public playgrounds. But those inclusive standards can add significantly to the cost of building playgrounds.
A recent NPR report told the story of a family in Pocatello, Idaho, that led a fundraising effort to build a community playground that was accessible and fun for kids of all ability levels. It is Brooklyn’s Playground, named after the family’s wheelchair-bound seven-year-old daughter. Its wide ramps and smooth rubber ground coverings allow wheelchairs to reach all areas, and its swings have back support for children with upper-body disorders.
At 15,000 square feet and a cost of just over half a million dollars, most municipalities could not afford to build such a playground, but Brooklyn’s family spent eight months soliciting donations and organizing bake sales to make it happen.
When advocates and families work together to give special-needs children every possible opportunity, the entire community benefits.
By Hook Law Center
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced the availability of retroactive disability benefits for certain claimants.
One year of retroactive benefits is available to veterans who file a Fully-Developed Claim for service-connected disability. The policy is in effect from August 6, 2013, to August 5, 2015.
Through various policies, the VA is strongly encouraging veterans to file fully-developed claims. When filing FDCs, veterans must provide all supporting evidence in their possession at the time of submission. This may include information the veteran already has, but which the VA is otherwise obligated to track down, and evidence easily obtained by the veteran, such as private medical records.
A traditional claim gives the veteran time to gather evidence while the VA begins to process the claim. An FDC allows the VA to decide the claim more quickly than a traditional claim while still tracking down needed federal records on behalf of the veteran. The VA says it processes FDCs in half the time required for a traditional claim.
After having unconscionable backlogs and waiting times for disability claims for years, the VA appears to be getting its act together. It is switching from paper to computerized records and has implemented an online portal, eBenefits, to allow electronic submission of initial claims, creating an all-electronic process for a portion of cases. And as part of its effort to eliminate its claims backlog in 2015, the VA announced mandatory overtime for all claims processors through the end of the fiscal year.
By Hook Law Center
The recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will have widespread effects on many federal programs. It may take quite some time for the ruling to be fully implemented into law. But a recent statement from the Social Security Administration (SSA) shows some progress on that front.
On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 3 of DOMA, which denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. On August 9, 2013, the SSA issued a statement from Carolyn W. Colvin, acting commissioner, announcing the administration “is now processing some retirement spouse claims for same-sex couples and paying benefits where they are due.” The statement encouraged all individuals who believe they may be eligible to apply for Social Security benefits.
Most same-sex couples who are married reside either in the state in which they married or another state that recognizes their marriage. Others relocated after marrying to states that do not recognize their marriage. For now, it is only certain that the former group will be eligible for federal benefits. It remains to be seen whether those in non-recognizing states will receive equal treatment by the federal government.
President Obama weighed in following the Supreme Court ruling, saying, “It’s my personal belief – but I’m speaking now as a president as opposed to as a lawyer – that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple.”
By Hook Law Center
Eleven women braved a month-long endurance challenge to raise awareness for special-needs children.
The women bicycled 1,500 miles through nine states and over two dozen cities, pedaling through sweltering summer afternoons and drenching rains for the first-ever women’s Bike 4 Friendship. Men’s cross-country Bike 4 Friendship trips were held in 2011 and 2012, and a third is currently underway.
The events are organized by The Friendship Circle, a Jewish organization for special-needs children and families with 79 locations around the world.
The cyclists set out on June 30, 2013, from Friendship Circle of Miami in Pinecrest, Fla. At 10 a.m., Pinecrest mayor Cindy Lerner cut the starting-line ribbon, and the cyclists began their journey. Lerner also issued a proclamation naming June 30 “Bike 4 Friendship Day.”
Before the cyclists set foot to pedal, the event had already raised $100,000. The trip was scheduled to end on July 28 in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Special-needs children face huge challenges in dealing with aspects of daily life that many of us take for granted. Community resources like The Friendship Circle are indispensable. It is difficult to overstate the benefits that children and families can receive from networking and socializing with others who face similar challenges.
Individuals who go to such great lengths to raise funds and awareness for special-needs children deserve great respect. Their selfless actions do a great deal for struggling families.
By Hook Law Center
A new study in France of nearly half a million retirees provided support for the theory that using one’s brain can help prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. That is because the research shows a link between delayed retirement and a lowered risk of the disorder.
The results did not come as a surprise to researchers. When compared with the life of a retiree, working life tends to provide more social connections, physical activity, and mental challenges – all factors shown to help prevent a decline in mental faculties.
Researchers at INSERM, a health research agency of the French government, analyzed the health records of 429,000 workers. They averaged 74 years of age and had been in retirement an average of 12 years.
The study showed that each additional year of work reduced the risk of developing dementia by about 3 percent. On average, an individual who had retired at 65 had about 15 percent less risk of dementia than someone who had retired at 60.
Sometimes declining mental abilities force people into early retirement, and researchers knew they had to control for that possibility. To do so, they ran separate analyses of their data that eliminated subjects who had developed dementia within 5 years of retirement and within 10 years. The trend was the same, demonstrating that work had affected dementia and not the other way around.
About 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s – 1 of every 9 people who are 65 years or older. While the cause remains unknown and no treatments exist to slow its progression, scientists recommend certain lifestyle changes that are likely to lower the risk of developing it. They include: exercise and general physical activity; social connections, including volunteer work and joining clubs; healthy eating, including lots of vegetables; and mental challenges, such as crossword puzzles.