Ken Carlson

Stanislaus County Pulse: Benefits consultant knows the system

By Ken Carlson

kcarlson@modbee.com

Some organizations who appear in news articles wait until after publication to return the reporter’s call.

I never thought it a good practice. When I called the Center for Elder Veterans Rights in Nashville, I earnestly wanted to know how it justified charging $700 in exchange for seeking spousal survivor benefits for a Modesto woman last year who wanted to live at the Standiford Place retirement center.

A manager referred Kim Lingenfelter to the law firm to expedite a benefits application for her mom, but the benefit approved six months later didn’t nearly cover what they were paying for the Standiford Place apartment through a bridge loan.

A federal law makes it illegal to charge fees to help veterans apply for benefits. But I figured the Nashville firm headed by attorney Kristen Vanderkooi had an explanation for charging the fee. And it does, as Vanderkooi explained when she called Thursday.

Vanderkooi said the firm charges a pre-filing consultation fee. The $700 pays for an initial consultation with the client and a written legal opinion prepared by the firm on the client’s eligibility for benefits. The firm then works the application for the veteran or surviving spouse on a pro bono basis, Vanderkooi said.

Good one, I thought.

Vanderkooi said the ethics of the fee arrangement became a subject for debate some time ago. She has fought for her position and has provided her service within a gray area of the law. She produced a 2004 letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs General Counsel conceding the point.

Those who get down in the weeds of VA rules and regulations will find reference to individuals who charge a “consultation” fee for informing veterans about benefits. And it appears those individuals need to be careful.

According to VA literature, “In certain states, a license to practice law may be required to charge a fee for ‘consultations,’ which may be considered giving legal advice.” For further warning, “such ‘consultation’ fees are unlawful if they are charged after a veteran or survivor becomes a VA claimant by expressing to the attorney an intent to file a claim.”

Vanderkooi said: “We have a lot of clients and the VA definitely knows who I am and what I am dong. We do good work here.”

Vanderkooi said she did not have a business relationship with any manager at Standiford Place. Several residents or prospective tenants told me a former manager of the Shawnee Drive facility told them the Nashville firm worked with the retirement home.

A number of local seniors have received veterans benefits to live in retirement centers, only to later receive VA letters telling them to return tens of thousands of dollars. That would include 81-year-old Fay Fernandez, who is being told to return $47,000 in benefits. A consultant at Standiford Place advised her on applying for the VA benefit four years ago.

Apparently, she didn’t spend the benefit properly on rent or care assistance. Vanderkooi, who obviously knows the byzantine policies, gave her opinion on why the VA was wrong for canceling Fay’s benefit. But I didn’t understand what she said.

Ernie Foote, a board member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, said he picked up an application for VA benefits at the Sundial retirement facility when his late wife was there. He made the application and was approved for a small monthly amount to help with his wife’s care.

He didn’t understand what the benefit was for and kept the money in the bank. Which turned out to be wise. “Eleven months later, they sent me a letter and told me to send it back, and I sent it back,” Foote said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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