38 CFR § 3.159 - Department of Veterans Affairs assistance in developing claims.
(a) Definitions. For purposes of this section, the following definitions apply:
(1) Competent medical evidence means evidence provided by a person who is qualified through education, training, or experience to offer medical diagnoses, statements, or opinions. Competent medical evidence may also mean statements conveying sound medical principles found in medical treatises. It would also include statements contained in authoritative writings such as medical and scientific articles and research reports or analyses.
(2) Competent lay evidence means any evidence not requiring that the proponent have specialized education, training, or experience. Lay evidence is competent if it is provided by a person who has knowledge of facts or circumstances and conveys matters that can be observed and described by a lay person.
(3) Substantially complete application means an application containing:
(i) The claimant's name;
(ii) His or her relationship to the veteran, if applicable;
(iii) Sufficient service information for VA to verify the claimed service, if applicable;
(iv) The benefit sought and any medical condition(s) on which it is based;
(v) The claimant's signature; and
(vi) In claims for nonservice-connected disability or death pension and parents' dependency and indemnity compensation, a statement of income;
(vii) In supplemental claims, identification or inclusion of potentially new evidence (see § 3.2501);
(viii) For higher-level reviews, identification of the date of the decision for which review is sought.
(4) For purposes of paragraph (c)(4)(i) of this section, event means one or more incidents associated with places, types, and circumstances of service giving rise to disability.
(5) Information means non-evidentiary facts, such as the claimant's Social Security number or address; the name and military unit of a person who served with the veteran; or the name and address of a medical care provider who may have evidence pertinent to the claim.
(b) VA's duty to notify claimants of necessary information or evidence.
(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3) of this section, when VA receives a complete or substantially complete initial or supplemental claim, VA will notify the claimant of any information and medical or lay evidence that is necessary to substantiate the claim (hereafter in this paragraph referred to as the “notice”) In the notice, VA will inform the claimant which information and evidence, if any, that the claimant is to provide to VA and which information and evidence, if any, that VA will attempt to obtain on behalf of the claimant. The information and evidence that the claimant is informed that the claimant is to provide must be provided within one year of the date of the notice. If the claimant has not responded to the notice within 30 days, VA may decide the claim prior to the expiration of the one-year period based on all the information and evidence contained in the file, including information and evidence it has obtained on behalf of the claimant and any VA medical examinations or medical opinions. If VA does so, however, and the claimant subsequently provides the information and evidence within one year of the date of the notice in accordance with the requirements of paragraph (b)(4) of this section, VA must readjudicate the claim.
(2) If VA receives an incomplete application for benefits, it will notify the claimant of the information necessary to complete the application and will defer assistance until the claimant submits this information.
(3) No duty to provide the notice described in paragraph (b)(1) of this section arises:
(i) Upon receipt of a supplemental claim under § 3.2501 within one year of the date VA issues notice of a prior decision;
(ii) Upon receipt of a request for higher-level review under § 3.2601;
(iii) Upon receipt of a Notice of Disagreement under § 20.202 of this chapter; or
(iv) When, as a matter of law, entitlement to the benefit claimed cannot be established.
(4) After VA has issued a notice of decision, submission of information and evidence substantiating a claim must be accomplished through the proper filing of a review option in accordance with § 3.2500 on a form prescribed by the Secretary. New and relevant evidence may be submitted in connection with either the filing of a supplemental claim under § 3.2501 or the filing of a Notice of Disagreement with the Board under 38 CFR 20.202, on forms prescribed by the Secretary, and election of a Board docket that permits the filing of new evidence (see 38 CFR 20.302 and 20.303).
(c) VA's duty to assist claimants in obtaining evidence. VA has a duty to assist claimants in obtaining evidence to substantiate all substantially complete initial and supplemental claims, and when a claim is returned for readjudication by a higher-level adjudicator or the Board after identification of a duty to assist error on the part of the agency of original jurisdiction, until the time VA issues notice of a decision on a claim or returned claim. VA will make reasonable efforts to help a claimant obtain evidence necessary to substantiate the claim. VA will not pay any fees charged by a custodian to provide records requested. When a claim is returned for readjudication by a higher-level adjudicator or the Board after identification of a duty to assist error, the agency of original jurisdiction has a duty to correct any other duty to assist errors not identified by the higher-level adjudicator or the Board.
(1) Obtaining records not in the custody of a Federal department or agency. VA will make reasonable efforts to obtain relevant records not in the custody of a Federal department or agency, to include records from State or local governments, private medical care providers, current or former employers, and other non-Federal governmental sources. Such reasonable efforts will generally consist of an initial request for the records and, if the records are not received, at least one follow-up request. A follow-up request is not required if a response to the initial request indicates that the records sought do not exist or that a follow-up request for the records would be futile. If VA receives information showing that subsequent requests to this or another custodian could result in obtaining the records sought, then reasonable efforts will include an initial request and, if the records are not received, at least one follow-up request to the new source or an additional request to the original source.
(i) The claimant must cooperate fully with VA's reasonable efforts to obtain relevant records from non-Federal agency or department custodians. The claimant must provide enough information to identify and locate the existing records, including the person, company, agency, or other custodian holding the records; the approximate time frame covered by the records; and, in the case of medical treatment records, the condition for which treatment was provided.
(ii) If necessary, the claimant must authorize the release of existing records in a form acceptable to the person, company, agency, or other custodian holding the records.
(2) Obtaining records in the custody of a Federal department or agency. VA will make as many requests as are necessary to obtain relevant records from a Federal department or agency. These records include but are not limited to military records, including service medical records; medical and other records from VA medical facilities; records from non-VA facilities providing examination or treatment at VA expense; and records from other Federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration. VA will end its efforts to obtain records from a Federal department or agency only if VA concludes that the records sought do not exist or that further efforts to obtain those records would be futile. Cases in which VA may conclude that no further efforts are required include those in which the Federal department or agency advises VA that the requested records do not exist or the custodian does not have them.
(i) The claimant must cooperate fully with VA's reasonable efforts to obtain relevant records from Federal agency or department custodians. If requested by VA, the claimant must provide enough information to identify and locate the existing records, including the custodian or agency holding the records; the approximate time frame covered by the records; and, in the case of medical treatment records, the condition for which treatment was provided. In the case of records requested to corroborate a claimed stressful event in service, the claimant must provide information sufficient for the records custodian to conduct a search of the corroborative records.
(ii) If necessary, the claimant must authorize the release of existing records in a form acceptable to the custodian or agency holding the records.
(3) Obtaining records in compensation claims. In a claim for disability compensation, VA will make efforts to obtain the claimant's service medical records, if relevant to the claim; other relevant records pertaining to the claimant's active military, naval, air, or space service that are held or maintained by a governmental entity; VA medical records or records of examination or treatment at non-VA facilities authorized by VA; and any other relevant records held by any Federal department or agency. The claimant must provide enough information to identify and locate the existing records including the custodian or agency holding the records; the approximate time frame covered by the records; and, in the case of medical treatment records, the condition for which treatment was provided.
(4) Providing medical examinations or obtaining medical opinions.
(i) In a claim for disability compensation, VA will provide a medical examination or obtain a medical opinion based upon a review of the evidence of record if VA determines it is necessary to decide the claim. A medical examination or medical opinion is necessary if the information and evidence of record does not contain sufficient competent medical evidence to decide the claim, but:
(A) Contains competent lay or medical evidence of a current diagnosed disability or persistent or recurrent symptoms of disability;
(B) Establishes that the veteran suffered an event, injury or disease in service, or has a disease or symptoms of a disease listed in §§ 3.309, 3.313, 3.316, 3.317, and 3.320 manifesting during an applicable presumptive period provided the claimant has the required service or triggering event to qualify for that presumption; and
(C) Indicates that the claimed disability or symptoms may be associated with the established event, injury, or disease in service or with another service-connected disability.
(ii) Paragraph (4)(i)(C) could be satisfied by competent evidence showing post-service treatment for a condition, or other possible association with military service.
(iii) For requests to reopen a finally adjudicated claim received prior to the effective date provided in § 19.2(a) of this chapter, this paragraph (c)(4) applies only if new and material evidence is presented or secured as prescribed in § 3.156.
(iv) This paragraph (c)(4) applies to a supplemental claim only if new and relevant evidence under § 3.2501 is presented or secured.
(d) Circumstances where VA will refrain from or discontinue providing assistance. VA will refrain from providing assistance in obtaining evidence for an initial or supplemental claim if the substantially complete application for benefits indicates that there is no reasonable possibility that any assistance VA would provide to the claimant would substantiate the claim. VA will discontinue providing assistance in obtaining evidence for a claim if the evidence obtained indicates that there is no reasonable possibility that further assistance would substantiate the claim. Circumstances in which VA will refrain from or discontinue providing assistance in obtaining evidence include, but are not limited to:
(1) The claimant's ineligibility for the benefit sought because of lack of qualifying service, lack of veteran status, or other lack of legal eligibility;
(2) Claims that are inherently incredible or clearly lack merit; and
(3) An application requesting a benefit to which the claimant is not entitled as a matter of law.
(e) Duty to notify claimant of inability to obtain records.
(1) If VA makes reasonable efforts to obtain relevant non-Federal records but is unable to obtain them, or after continued efforts to obtain Federal records concludes that it is reasonably certain they do not exist or further efforts to obtain them would be futile, VA will provide the claimant with oral or written notice of that fact. VA will make a record of any oral notice conveyed to the claimant. For non-Federal records requests, VA may provide the notice at the same time it makes its final attempt to obtain the relevant records. In either case, the notice must contain the following information:
(i) The identity of the records VA was unable to obtain;
(ii) An explanation of the efforts VA made to obtain the records;
(iii) A description of any further action VA will take regarding the claim, including, but not limited to, notice that VA will decide the claim based on the evidence of record unless the claimant submits the records VA was unable to obtain; and
(iv) A notice that the claimant is ultimately responsible for providing the evidence.
(2) If VA becomes aware of the existence of relevant records before deciding the claim, VA will notify the claimant of the records and request that the claimant provide a release for the records. If the claimant does not provide any necessary release of the relevant records that VA is unable to obtain, VA will request that the claimant obtain the records and provide them to VA.
(f) For the purpose of the notice requirements in paragraphs (b) and (e) of this section, notice to the claimant means notice to the claimant or his or her fiduciary, if any, as well as to his or her representative, if any.
(g) The authority recognized in subsection (g) of 38 U.S.C. 5103A is reserved to the sole discretion of the Secretary and will be implemented, when deemed appropriate by the Secretary, through the promulgation of regulations.