What GAO Found
In summary, we identified over 200 organizations that market financial and estate planning services to help pension claimants with excess assets qualify for pension benefits. These organizations consist primarily of financial planners and attorneys who offer products such as annuities and trusts. All 19 organizations our investigative staff contacted said a claimant can qualify for pension benefits by transferring assets before applying, which is permitted under the program. Two organization representatives said they helped pension claimants with substantial assets, including millionaires, obtain VAs approval for benefits. Some products and services provided, such as deferred annuities, may not be suitable for the elderly because they may not have access to their funds within their expected lifetime without facing high withdrawal fees. Also, such asset transfers may result in ineligibility for Medicaid coverage for long-term care for a period of time. The majority of the 19 organizations contacted charged fees, ranging from a few hundred dollars for benefits counseling to $10,000 for establishment of a trust. In our report we asked Congress to consider establishing a look-back and penalty period for pension claimants who transfer assets prior to applying for pension benefits, similar to other federally supported means-tested programs, such as Medicaid. We also recommended that VA obtain timely information on asset transfers, strengthen income and asset verification processes, and provide clearer guidance to claims processors. VA concurred with our recommendations and agreed that a look back and penalty period for asset transfers was needed.
Why GAO Did This Study
This testinony discusses the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) pension program, which provides economic benefits to wartime veterans age 65 and older or who have disabilities that are unrelated to their military service, as well as to their surviving spouses and dependent children. To qualify for VA pension benefits, a claimant must have limited income and assets. Recently, concerns have been raised that some organizations are marketing financial products and other services to help individuals whose assets exceed the programs financial eligibility thresholds qualify for these benefits. These organizations may charge substantial fees for products and services that may not always be in claimants best long-term interests.
In our report released today on VAs pension program, we identified vulnerabilities in VAs procedures for assessing financial eligibility. We also found that there is no prohibition on claimants transferring assets prior to applying for benefits, and some claimants do so. Other means-tested programs, such as Medicaid, conduct a look-back review to determine if an individual has transferred assets for less than fair market value, and if so, may deny eligibility for benefits for a period of time. This control helps ensure that only those in financial need receive benefits.
This testimony is based on our report and focuses on what is known about organizations that are marketing financial products and services to veterans and survivors to enable them to qualify for VA pension benefits.
For more information, please contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.