Be Your Own Detective: How to Get Documentation for Public Benefits Applications

Applying for public benefits like TennCare/Medicaid or the VA pension is tough for a variety of reasons.  The forms and procedures are complicated, the laws and agency guidelines are moving targets, and it can be hard to find reliable guidance through the process.  One of the obstacles that throws many applicants off course is the requirement to gather meticulous documentation accounting for every bit of the applicant’s income and assets – not just in the present, but going back several years.  Often the person for whom benefits are being sought is not capable of doing the “leg work” required to dig up all this documentation and assemble it to file a claim.  That task may fall to a spouse or adult child, and depending on how organized or disorganized the applicant has been, the person doing the digging may not even know where to begin.

At Elder Law of East Tennessee, we help many people with their scavenger hunts for the right documentation.  While we can provide some guidance, in most cases an authorized relative has to be the one to actually request information from companies and agencies.  A family member who is willing to do thorough detective work will be most effective in helping their loved one file a successful benefits application.  If you find yourself in the position of helping someone apply for benefits, here are a few document-specific tips to help you put your hands on the information you need:

Birth Certificate, Death Certificate, or Marriage Certificate

Contact the vital records office in the state or county where the birth, death, or marriage occurred. You may have to fill out an application and pay a small fee. Sometimes this can be done online (it varies by county and state). Requests must be made by the person named on the certificate or their parent, guardian, child, or spouse.

Car Title

Visit the county clerk’s office for the county in which the vehicle is registered.  Take two forms of photo ID and the vehicle registration document and insurance card. If the title is lost, apply for a replacement title. It will be mailed to you. There will be a small fee.

Certified copy of discharge paper for VA applications

If you already have the original discharge document and need to get it certified, take it to your local VA office. They will make a copy and stamp it certified.  Always protect your original.

If you do not have a discharge document, a DD214 (or similar discharge record) can be requested from the National Personnel Records Center online or via mail or fax.  Call your local VA office or visit the National Archives veterans service records page for complete instructions.  Be prepared to answer: branch of the military, the dates of service, and location of induction. But if you do not have this information, don’t panic.  You may be able to proceed without it.

Start as soon as possible if you need to request an original military service record.  Because of a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center, 16-18 million Army and Air Force records for veterans discharged between 1912 and 1964 were damaged or destroyed.  If the veteran applying for benefits is one of those affected, reconstructing their military record might take several weeks.

Financial or Insurance Statements (bank account, pension, annuity, IRA, CD, investment, insurance premium)

Contact the bank or company and ask for documentation to prove what needs to be verified.  You will need the name of the account holder, date of birth and social security number, mailing address associated with the account, and the account or policy number.

  • If you are not the person who purchased the product or an authorized user on the account, you may need to fax the company authorization by the account owner to allow access (for instance, a Durable Power of Attorney naming you as the agent). If the account owner can speak to the company representative, he or she can authorize access over the phone, which is much faster.  Just get together and place the call.  Have the owner verify information and give permission to speak with you.  Then ask your questions.
  • If the company from which the product was originally purchased no longer exists, investigate online to determine which company bought the original company. For example, search “ACME Insurance Company bought by what company?” or “Who owns ACME Insurance Company?”  It may take several search attempts before you are able to find the answer you need, so don’t give up.  If you have a bank statement showing deposits by a company but lack full name or contact information, you may ask your bank to assist you in tracing the information from the review of the bank statement.
  • If your health insurance premium is automatically deducted from your Social Security, you might never have received a health insurance premium statement. You can obtain a statement by contacting the insurance provider directly.  If the premium amount is $0, ask them to send you a letter confirming this amount.  TennCare/Medicaid requires this documentation.

Property Tax Statements

Visit the register of deeds or tax assessor’s office for the county where the property is located.  Tennessee residents can find property tax information via the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury website or from the Tennessee County Trustees Association website.  Knox County residents may go to the Knox County property tax search webpage.

Utility Statements and Phone Bills

Contact the utility or phone company directly.  If you have an online account and login information, this may be the fastest way to retrieve statements.

Social Security Award Letters

Call 1-800-772-1213 or visit the Social Security website to set up an account with SSA.  You will be asked several security questions related to your financial history.  Take care to answer these correctly; if you fail to do so, you will be denied access.  You may also visit your local SSA office.  Take two forms of photo ID with you.

This is not a comprehensive list of all documents TennCare/Medicaid or the VA might require for a benefits application.  You may also need to provide documentation of medical or other expenses.  Your best bet is to seek expert guidance to ensure that your claim is complete and to maximize your chances of a quick and positive outcome.  Whether you choose to seek assistance or go it alone, we hope this list will help you get started with some of the more challenging-to-obtain documents.