After a woman’s experience with a Modesto retirement center, the Senior Law Project wants elderly veterans and their families to know it’s illegal to charge fees for helping a veteran or surviving spouse to obtain benefits.
Kim Lingenfelter of San Jose said a former manager at Standiford Place senior living center encouraged her in June to use a service in Tennessee to expedite benefits for her mother from Oakdale. Her mother was eager to live at the Shawnee Drive center and was entitled to survivor benefits through her late husband’s military service.
Lingenfelter said the veterans rights service charged her mother $700 for handling the benefits application, which is a violation of federal and California law, a county official said.
“We want to raise awareness to veterans that you don’t need to pay someone to tell you that you qualify for benefits,” said attorney Joyce Gandelman, executive director of the nonprofit Senior Law Project. “If someone tries to charge you fees, you don’t have to pay.”
Jim Greer, veterans services officer for Stanislaus County, said about once a month his office hears that someone charged a fee to help a veteran with a benefits application. Federal law prohibits that and only allows accredited organizations to give free assistance to veterans.
After reports of elderly veterans being fleeced by “advocates,” Senate Bill 180 added consumer protections in California for those who apply for social services.
Lingenfelter said the out-of-state service did not expedite her mother’s application for what’s known as “aid and attendance” benefits. The first benefit payment came six months later in December. Greer said the same process through the county office normally takes 45 to 60 days. He said other assisted living centers in Modesto use the county veterans service office to assist prospective tenants with applying for benefits.
The San Jose woman said the former manager at Standiford Place told her the center worked with the service in Tennessee to obtain benefits more quickly for veterans. According to Lingenfelter, the manager claimed the process can take a year through normal channels.
Lingenfelter has other issues with Standiford Place. According to her, the manager proposed they take out a loan through Elderlife Financial Services to pay for move-in expenses and rent until the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded the benefits. They agreed, and the loan balance grew to $9,000 by December.
When the VA approved the benefits, they were $916 a month, $200 less than the manager had estimated, Lengenfelter said.
The lump-sum benefits payment was not enough to reimburse for three months of rental payments, leaving her mother with a $5,000 loan balance. Lingenfelter also is disputing $760 in unpaid rent the center claims is owed.
“The VA did not reimburse back to June 2014,” Lingenfelter said. “She received $5,000 less than what (the former manager) told us she should expect.”
Javiera Garcia, regional manager for Holiday Retirement, the company that owns Standiford Place, said the company has a policy against using services that charge fees for assisting veterans. “That is a concern for me, and I would love an opportunity to research it further,” Garcia said.
Garcia said she could not comment on the specifics of the loan for Lingenfelter’s mother. She said Elderlife loans are a service available at its retirement centers but prospective residents are not required to use the service.
In September 2013, Holiday Retirement agreed to a settlement with the Oregon Department of Justice to pay restitution to 163 veterans who were financially damaged by unlawful marketing of senior housing. The state investigated allegations that Holiday misled customers about the availability of VA benefits.
According to a state news release, Holiday offered to defer the rent for veterans who moved into Holiday facilities based on anticipated income from VA benefits. “After some of these new residents failed to qualify for the veterans benefits, Holiday took aggressive actions to collect the deferred rent,” a state press release said.
Holiday agreed to pay $750 to more than $3,500 to each victim.
Brian Fawkes, communications director for Holiday, said it would be a stretch to connect the woman’s complaints about Standiford Place to the issues in Oregon.
“Holiday Retirement is not involved in any veterans benefits programs,” Fawkes said in an email. “Residents are free to work with any third-party veterans benefits advisers to see what benefits they may qualify for. It’s unfortunate that the resident was not satisfied with the services she chose. We’ll certainly look into the matter to see if there’s anything we can do.”
Gandelman has advised Lingenfelter and her mother not to pay the March rent. The Senior Law Project will ask Staniford Place to refund the benefits application fee and a loan origination charge to Lingenfelter’s mother and resolve other issues with her, Gandelman said.
SB 180 extended to veterans the right to bring consumer lawsuits against entities that charge unreasonable fees for advise on social services. Gandelman said she suspects an out-of-state service was used in an effort to get around the state law.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.
At a glance
▪ Federal law prohibits any individual or entity from charging a fee to help veterans obtain benefits.
▪ Attorneys may charge fees to represent a veteran who has been denied benefits. The legal fees are submitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs for review.
▪ California law prohibits groups from charging unreasonable fees for help with obtaining social services.