Veterans Legal Institute® helps clients overcome the stigma and limited access to benefits that often come when discharges are classified as less than honorable. These types of discharges can add to the emotional trauma our clients unfortunately face too often. They might also limit the scope and amount of benefits like pensions and healthcare. To address this, Veterans Legal Institute stands before review boards on behalf of clients, providing a deeper understanding of aggravating circumstances. 

The goal is to secure discharge upgrades after reviewing entities further understand related complications. These can include trauma or mental illness stemming from multiple tours, sexual assaults that too often remain unaddressed in combat situations, and any pre-existing conditions that might have impacted discharges. With a just discharge upgrade, clients may gain peace of mind and unfettered access to the lives that are the right every American to fully and confidently enjoy.

Many times, a veteran is assigned a negative characterization of service that does not accurately reflect his/her performance.  Consider the heartbreaking case of Amber, a female veteran who was the victim of military sexual trauma during her tenure on active duty.  In Amber’s case, she was sexually assaulted by her company commander during Advanced Individual Training in the Army.  A 20-year-old private first class at the time of the incident, her assailant was much older at 35 and held a higher rank of captain.  Scared to report the incident for fear of retaliation and exclusion from her tight-knit unit due to the captain’s senior status, Amber attempts to deal with the psychological fallout from the assault alone.  Required to interact with her company commander on a daily basis, the situation eventually becomes too much for her.  Over time she withdraws from her friends, loses interest in her job, and turns to prescription drugs to cope with the pain.  This in turn causes her to come up hot on a unit urinalysis test and be separated from the Army with discharge characterization of other than honorable.

If Amber’s other than honorable characterization is not upgraded after leaving military service, she may be excluded from critical VA benefits, including health care and the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, an educational assistance program that pays for four years of college.  Cases involving unreported military sexual trauma are unfortunately common, with a 2012 study by the Pentagon finding that approximately 26,000 military members were assaulted in that year alone.  Most of the instances of sexual trauma identified in the study were unreported.  

Attorney assistance is critical in the discharge upgrade process as evidence of sexual assault will need to be developed and presented for the first time in the upgrade paperwork, the veteran’s military records usually being devoid of any mention of it.  Working on sexual trauma cases requires sensitivity, compassion, and finesse as the client is forced to relive painful experiences and discuss events much rather forgotten.  But the benefit to a veteran such as Amber receiving benefits such as Post-9/11 G.I. Bill can be truly transformative and bring closure to a painful open wound.  This is just one illustration of where VLI assists those who need a discharge upgrade. There are many cases where veterans who deployed on multiple combat tours return home with an “other than honorable” characterization due to trauma instigated behavior.  VLI seeks to zealously advocate for those veterans with their right to an appeal. In most cases, veterans who attend a hearing with an attorney are five times more likely to prevail than if they just submit a written application on their own.

Legal Services​ Division

VA Claims

Service-Connected Disabilities

Veterans Legal Institute® assists with determining and adjusting appropriate levels of support for any disabilities stemming from military service. Too often we find clients might not understand they’re entitled to compensations for all service-connected disabilities, not only those from combat injuries. Our goal is to provide access to just compensation for specific areas, or lifetime disability. 

VA Requirements

To support a claim for service connection, the evidence must show the following:

-You have a current physical or mental disability.

-You had an injury or disease in service or experienced an event in service that caused or aggravated an injury or disease.
-There is a link between your current disability and the event, injury, or disease in military service.

If you have any of the following relevant items, you should submit them with your claim:

-Discharge or separation papers (the DD-214 or equivalent)
-Service treatment records and supporting statements
-Private medical provider records and hospital reports

Disability Compensation

Veterans who have disabilities, medical conditions, or injuries incurred or aggravated during active military service—no matter when or where they served—may be eligible to receive tax-free monthly benefits.


The application process for pensions can prove to be a real challenge for anyone, especially for those who face conditions stemming from service to our country. Veterans Legal Institute® helps clients navigate the process of applying for pensions in order to receive the full amount to which they’re entitled based on the following conditions:

  • Aged 65 or older, or
  • Access to limited or no income, or
  • Permanently or totally disabled, or
  • A patient in nursing home receiving skilled care, or
  • Receiving Social Security disability insurance, or
  • Receiving supplemental security income.

We also help with the assessment of needs-based countable days, which must fall below a yearly limit, with 90 days of active duty including one day during wartime. If clients were on active duty after Sept. 7 1980, they must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which they were called up, with some exceptions.

Aid and Attendance, and Housebounds

Benefits are also available to address situations where individuals find themselves unable to leave their homes unsupported, or require resources for the attendance of another person. Veterans Legal Institute® helps clients with the application process in order to receive appropriate payments in addition to their pensions, provided they qualify for pensions.

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Service Deserves Support

For Veterans who are looking to incorporate new non-profit organizations and apply for tax exemption, as well as those who start small businesses, the VLI can assist in navigating the complex legal and government path to help ensure the veteran operated organization is on sound footing.  

With an appropriate expungement or dismissal, Veterans Legal Institute® helps clients enjoy a record that accurately reflects their dedicated service. A record free from unnecessary blemishes lets our clients know the feeling of pride they so richly deserve, and removes any obstacles to the full range of benefits to which they’re entitled. The state of California continually demonstrates a commitment to streamlining this process, and Veterans Legal Institute® is confident in helping clients, given a few important disqualifiers are avoided:

  • Client has outstanding warrants for arrest
  • Client is on formal or informal probation
  • Client has felony offenses, other than wobblers*
  • Client has served time in prison

*A “wobbler” is legal term describing felony offenses which alternatively could have been classified as misdemeanors. For more extensive details, please see California Penal Code Section 1203.4.


Estate Planning

Discharge Upgrades

Please consider supporting us with a contribution via this website, or through corporate or memorial giving. If you’re a veteran in need of legal assistance, please contact Veterans Legal Institute® by clicking here.

Non-Profit & Small Business Assistance

The VLI prepares basic wills, trusts and advanced health care directives for low income Veterans interested in estate planning.  

While often difficult, proper end of life planning is critical to the emotional health of our clients as well as the stability of their families.  The demand for estate planning, specifically among Vietnam and Korea era veterans is a great unmet need in Southern California that the VLI seeks to address through direct in house services, legal clinics, and its pro bono attorney network. 

As veterans or current military members, VLI’s clients have demonstrated bravery and dedication to the country, protecting it both at home and abroad.  Many of our clients have served in combat, enduring significant physical, emotional, and psychological wounds in the process.  All of VLI’s clients have been members of the United States Armed Forces, giving of themselves so that our nation can remain safe and strong.  

Many current and former service members face true challenges transitioning into their civilian lives after their military service is over.  A large portion of the challenges veterans face are legal in nature, from battling with the VA over compensation and pension claims to discharge upgrades to expungements of criminal convictions preventing them from gainful employment.  To honor their service, VLI provides free legal services to low income veterans and military members in a number of critical areas which often result in real improvements in their lives.  VLI is able to leverage its legal network who donate their services pro bono thereby providing exponential service hours to its clientele.

While we understand our services only begin to repay a debt of gratitude, VLI’s staff hopes to empower clients in achieving a greater measure of self-sufficiency, and with that, to experience the lives they deserve.  Support begins with an attorney reviewing each potential client’s individual circumstances and any additional challenges he or she might face.  We then work tirelessly to address the obstacles that are keeping our clients from the benefits they deserve.