Skip to the main content.
Free Case Review




green lock security thumb

green lock security thumb



green lock security thumb

green lock security thumb



3 min read

Hairston v McDonough Veteran Pension and Spousal Income

Veteran Pension and Spousal Income

Arthur L. Hairston, Sr. is currently in the process of appealing a decision made by the Board regarding his non-service-connected pension. This pension is based on need and is determined by a veteran's annual income and net worth, rather than being connected to any specific service-related condition. The main issue in question is whether or not a spouse's income should be included when calculating the veteran's annual income.

According to the VA regulation, the spouse's income should indeed be included, but Hairston disagrees with this interpretation. However, the Court has ultimately upheld the Board's decision, as it has determined that Hairston's annual income, including his wife's earnings, exceeds the maximum annual pension rate. The Court has deemed the Board's error in applying the prior year's MAPR as non-prejudicial.

The document goes on to discuss the eligibility requirements for a non-service-connected pension, which include the need for 90 days of active service during a period of war, as well as specific net worth and age or disability requirements. Hairston himself has intermittently received pension benefits since 1992, but his benefits were suspended twice, once due to incarceration and once due to full-time employment. In 2018, when he reapplied for benefits, his application was denied by the regional office due to his countable income, including his wife's income, exceeding the maximum annual pension rate.

Hairston argues that the Board has misunderstood or misapplied the regulation by including his wife's income, claiming that the regulation itself is invalid. He also argues that both the net worth and income limits cannot be applied simultaneously to a single veteran. However, the Court has determined that the regulation is indeed valid, and that the Board did not make an error in including his wife's income, thus reaffirming the Board's decision.

Hairston challenges the VA's definition of a "[v]eteran's annual income" in § 3.23(d)(4), arguing that it does not align with the congressional scheme. To bolster his argument, he references 38 U.S.C. § 1521(c), which outlines that only income from a child that is reasonably accessible to the veteran should be considered. The Court delves into a thorough examination of the statute's text, asserting that if the text is clear, its plain meaning should prevail. After careful analysis, the Court determines that the phrase "such family members" in § 1521(c) encompasses both a spouse and children, contrary to Hairston's contention that it pertains solely to children. Consequently, the Court upholds the Board's decision, underscoring the principle of consistent meaning, where terms in a statutory text are consistently interpreted each time they appear. Furthermore, the Court asserts that the interpretation of "such family members" to encompass both a spouse and children aligns with the family-oriented, need-based structure of the pension program. Addressing the "subject to" clause in subsection (c)'s final sentence, the Court concludes that it does not deviate from the consistent-meaning principle.

The Court firmly concludes that U.S.C. § 1521(c) undeniably necessitates a reduction in the payable pension rate based on a spouse's income, affirming the validity of § 3.23(d)(4) as a regulation. Furthermore, the Court dismisses Hairston's contention that § 3.23 became obsolete following the 2018 amendments to regulatory provisions. In addition, the Court delves into a comprehensive discussion on the net worth limitation and the pension rate reduction scheme, emphasizing their harmonious collaboration in assessing the eligibility for need-based pension benefits. It clarifies that the 2018 amendments to §§ 3.274 and 3.275 did not introduce the concept of a net worth limit but rather clarified its definition. Moreover, the Court explores the historical context of the net worth limitation, highlighting its existence since 1979. Rejecting Hairston's argument, the Court firmly states that the 2018 revisions to §§ 3.274 and 3.275 did not override § 3.23's requirement to reduce the maximum annual pension rate (MAPR) based on countable income. Ultimately, the Court affirms that the Board did not commit any errors in applying the pertinent rules in this particular case. Hairston contends that the Board misconstrued the phrase "countable annual income of the veteran" in § 3.23(b), asserting that his wife's wages should not have been taken into account. However, the Court highlights that subsection (d) explicitly defines the term "annual income of the veteran" to encompass the income of the veteran's spouse.

The Court dismisses Hairston's argument that a definition cannot incorporate text to support a definition that is absent from the regulation it aims to define. In its conclusion, the Court affirms that the Board did not make an error when including Mr. Hairston's wife's wages as part of his annual income, thus upholding the Board's decision. The document also provides references to previous VA pension rates for veterans in 2019 and 2020.

Quoting a Joint Explanatory Statement from the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs, the Court highlights that pension rates are reduced by the income of the pensioner and their family members on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Although Mr. Hairston argues that Congress does not authorize pension reduction based on annual income, the Court points out that section 1521 mandates this reduction.

To clarify, the Court asserts that the terms "veteran's annual income" and "annual income of the veteran" are synonymous. Additionally, Mr. Hairston raises an argument that his spouse is not a "dependent" spouse, but the Court declines to address it due to its late presentation.