An organization of attorneys plans to sue the Veterans Affairs Department if the agency follows through on plans to means-test eligibility for pensions intended for low-income veterans.

The VA’s aim, detailed in a proposed rules change to the Federal Register, is to link the aid and assistance pension eligibility to a veteran’s net worth in the three years prior to applying for the benefit.

VA officials say the system is subject to abuse and cannot be sustained without the change. However, attorneys who represent elderly clients claim the move is contrary to Congress’ intention in establishing the benefit and will hurt veterans.

“If they enact these regulations we can expect the National Association of Elder Law Attorneys ... and groups that protect veterans will sue under the administrative procedures act,” Robert Anderson, founder of The Elder Law Firm of Anderson Associates in Michigan, told Military.com.

An agency or department may only alter a regulation if it is “explicitly authorized by federal statute or implicitly authorized,” according to Anderson. In the case of the VA, that authority from Congress is not there, he said.

The elder law association has already compiled its formal comments in opposition to the proposed change, Anderson said. The public comments period ends March 24.

The proposed change comes after the VA failed to get legislation passed to allow a three year look-back on net worth.

The General Accountability Office reported that attorneys and estate planners across the country have worked with veteran applicants who, based on their net worth and assets, would not be eligible for the pensions. Income and assets that would place the applicant outside the eligibility requirements would be transferred to a family member or into a trust concealing the information from the VA.

Currently, this is not illegal and such a transfer can be made right up to the time a veteran applies for the benefit, the GAO and VA said.

Gerald Manar, deputy director for National Veterans Service of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called the proposed changes reasonable.

Manar said the viability of the system is “a real concern” and echoed the GAO’s argument that attorneys and estate planners have been able to assist applicants in unloading or hiding assets in order to qualify for the pension.

“It’s not going to affect most veterans. Those who have a low income are not going to have a high net worth,” he said. “It’s for veterans and families who are truly low income and need the kind of assistance a VA pension can provide. It’s not much, but it’s something.”

Manar said he “does not begrudge” any veteran applying for the pension, as long as they’re honest in reporting their income so that the claim can be adjudicated fairly.

In cases where the regulations skew against a veteran who believes he or she should be eligibl3e, he said, the VFW will help the veteran in appealing to the VA.

“But the VFW doesn’t have any problem with these [proposed] regulations,” he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.