Veterans Watch Court Ruling for Possible Educational Expansion

11.8.19Veterans who qualify for both the Post 9/11 GI Bill program and the older Montgomery GI bill may have access to expanded veterans education benefits. It all hinges on a recent federal court decision and a possible appeal by VA officials.

Tens of thousands of veterans could be impacted, if Veterans Affairs officials decide to appeal a court decision regarding veterans education benefits, reports The Military Times in a recent article, “Court ruling could give veterans an extra year of GI Bill benefits.” The decision is being watched closely by the education sector as well.

The recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims held that the Department of Veterans Affairs practice of making veterans give up their Montgomery GI Bill eligibility to receive post-9/11 GI Bill payouts is improper. Department officials have argued in the past that it’s needed to ensure veterans aren’t duplicating benefits. However, a 2-1 decision by the judicial panel ruled that federal language prohibiting such “double-dipping” more appropriately means 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.”

Therefore, if veterans are eligible for both programs, they should get money from both, just not simultaneously, the court said.

Under current rules, the Post-9/11 GI Bill gives vets (or their family members) 36 months of tuition assistance and living stipends, if they served at least three years on active duty after Sept. 10, 2001. The Montgomery GI Bill provides a smaller, standardized stipend for 36 months to those who served on active duty for at least three years and paid into the program when they enlisted. In all but a few cases, vets get one benefit or the other, but not both.

The Montgomery GI Bill benefit has made headlines because many service members still contribute to the program, even though they probably won’t see any benefit from it. Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill is more generous in its payouts, most veterans give up their Montgomery program benefits when it comes time to attend classes. Congress has thought about ending the program in coming years.

In the lawsuit, a veteran had eight years of interrupted active-duty service from 2000 to 2011. During his breaks from the military, he used up about 26 months of his Montgomery GI Bill benefits. In 2015, he tried to switch to the more generous Post-911 GI Bill benefits. However, he was told he would only be eligible for 10 more months of education assistance. His lawyers argued that since it was a separate program with a separate qualifying period of service, he should get both. Under other federal statutes, the combined education benefits would be capped at 48 months, giving him potentially 22 more months of payouts.

The difference would’ve been enough to cover a degree at Yale, where he had been accepted. However, because the VA limited his payouts to 10 months, he was forced to abandon that program.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Margaret Bartley argued her fellow justices “demonstrate a misunderstanding” of how the education benefits work and of the congressional intent with establishing both programs.

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

It’s all up to the VA officials. If the decision is left unchallenged, the Department will need to quickly create and clarify rules for current and former beneficiaries. This has the potential to make getting education benefits for veterans much more complicated, instead of easier.

Reference: Military Times (September 3, 2019) “Court ruling could give veterans an extra year of GI Bill benefits”

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