Large-scale veterans' benefits such as the G.I. Bill get a lot of attention, and rightfully so -- the programs give veterans a significant leg up when it comes to paying for an education, one of life's most expensive milestones. But there are lesser-known benefits for veterans, many of which are tax-exempt and available for spouses and dependents, although eligibility rules can be strict: Some programs are only for disabled veterans; others require wartime service or have certain income limitations. Most stipulate a certain amount of service and honorable discharge.
VA HOME LOANS
With a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans and some surviving spouses can buy a house without a down payment or private mortgage insurance. Interest rates are competitive and credit requirements typically much looser than with conventional loans. The loans aren't limited to first-time buyers; vets can use the program over and over. The VA also offers cash-out refinance loans for veterans who want to tap their home equity or refinance non-VA loans into VA loans.
Tax-free monthly disability benefits are available for service-connected injuries or diseases, including physical conditions such as amputated limbs or back injuries and mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Benefits may also cover pre-existing conditions aggravated by service. Payments depend on the degree of disability and may be higher for veterans with dependents.
ADAPTED HOUSING GRANTS
Some veterans with service-connected disabilities are eligible for grants to help build or remodel housing to better meet their needs. This might include installing rails, grab bars, ramps, and other features to make the home more comfortable and accessible. The benefit is available to vets who live in and want to adapt a family member's home or haven't yet bought a home, and some who have already adapted a home on their own dime may be eligible to apply grant money toward the mortgage. Certain recipients may be eligible for Veterans' Mortgage Life Insurance, which can pay off a mortgage after their death.
GENERAL MEDICAL BENEFITS
Most veterans who enlisted after Sept. 7, 1980, and served at least 24 consecutive months are eligible for VA health care, Vets with service-connected disabilities, Vietnam and Persian Gulf veterans, former POWs, and Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients are among those who get priority when applying. The care isn't necessarily free; for many the cost is tied to income. But veterans are eligible even if they have private health insurance, which may kick in to cover co-pays and other expenses.
In some cases the G.I. Bill foots the entire bill for a four-year degree. But assistance can also be used for opportunities including vocational training programs, apprenticeships, correspondence schools, and licensing and certification costs. There are actually two main G.I. Bill programs. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill pays up to 36 months of tuition, housing, books, and supplies at qualifying schools for veterans who served since Sept. 11. Benefits are available for 15 years from the last day of active duty and may be transferrable to spouses or dependents. The Montgomery G.I. Bill pays 36 straight months of educational benefits directly to students who were enlisted continuously for at least two years, and benefits are available for 10 years after the last day of active duty. Many vets qualify for both programs, and there are additional benefits for reservists, surviving spouses, and dependents. A comparison tool can help figure out which program is the best option.
Active-duty Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance can convert to Veterans' Group Life Insurance upon discharge. Premiums are as low as 80 cents a month, but the crucial difference between VGLI and non-VA life insurance is that rates are based only on age -- they do not increase if a vet is a smoker or has other health conditions, physical or mental. It stays in effect as long as premiums are paid, with benefits including free lifetime access to financial counseling and will-preparation services. There's a separate program for disabled vets, and totally disabled veterans get a two-year extension of SGLI when they separate from the service.
Tax-free monthly pensions are paid to certain veterans 65 or older, but eligibility criteria are strict. Veterans must have very low income and meet certain service requirements, including having served at least one day during wartime. They also must be totally and permanently disabled, nursing care patients, Social Security Disability Insurance recipients, or Supplemental Security Income recipients. Pension amounts are different for everyone, because they're based on the gap between income and pre-set federal pension limits. Veterans who are housebound or need daily help may receive more. Some low-income spouses and children of deceased war veterans are eligible for survivors' pensions. Spouses who have remarried are ineligible, as are most children over 18 (or 23 if in school).
BURIAL AND MEMORIAL BENEFITS
Veterans are eligible for free burial in a national cemetery, with a grave marker, memorial service, and burial flag. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried with the veteran. Surviving spouses, dependents, parents, and select others may also get flat-rate burial allowances upon a veteran's death, up to $2,000 for a service-connected death.
VOCATIONAL REHABILITATION AND EMPLOYMENT PROGRAM
Veterans with a service-connected disability can take advantage of the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, including vocational counseling; advocacy for re-employment with former employers; self-employment help; and placement in various kinds of job-preparation programs. Independent-living aid, including physical or occupational therapy, is available for veterans who need that kind of help before they can pursue employment. Spouses and dependents of disabled veterans may also be eligible for career counseling and training. Vets without disabilities can access the Veterans Employment Center, which offers help with résumés, job searches, skill refinement, and other career assistance.
SMALL BUSINESS ASSISTANCE
The Small Business Administration and its Office of Veterans Business Development offer a wide range of help for vets thinking of starting a business. One is Boots to Business, available for military members transitioning out of the service and their spouses. It begins as a two-day on-base course and continues as an eight-week online course that covers entrepreneurship in-depth. Vets have access to outreach centers across the country, which provide help with a business plan, feasibility studies, training and counseling, and small-business mentorship.
Related: 10 Small Businesses You Can Start With Less Than $1,000
STATE PROPERTY TAX BREAKS
Many major veterans' benefits, including adapted-housing grants, pensions, disability benefits, and G.I. Bill benefits, are not subject to federal taxes. Several states also offer property tax breaks for disabled veterans. In Ohio, for example, fully disabled veterans may get a $50,000 tax exemption on their homes, according to Military.com. Utah gives property tax breaks that vary depending on the degree of disability, up to more than $244,000 for a fully disabled veteran.
STATE VETERANS HOMES
There are homes in every state that provide assisted living or skilled nursing care, based on availability, for veterans who show clinical need. Criteria vary from state to state, with some requiring wartime service or a specific period of state residency. Some homes accept applications from spouses or parents of veterans as well.
OTHER STATE-SPECIFIC BENEFITS
Individual states offer a range of other benefits for veterans, including education assistance in grants or scholarships, preferential hiring, annuities or bonuses, and free or discounted licenses and park permits for recreation such as hunting, fishing and camping. Veterans should check with their state's Department of Veterans Affairs for up-to-date information.
RETAIL AND RESTAURANT DISCOUNTS
A number of retailers offer year-round deals and discounts for at least some veterans. Notable examples include 10 percent off at Home Depot and Lowe's, 15 percent off monthly Verizon service, and a discount on new GM vehicles. And, of course, veterans can get free meals at several restaurants in honor of Veterans Day (Nov. 11), including Texas Roadhouse, Golden Corral, and Applebee's. The Military Wallet has complied lists of free meals and year-round discounts.