Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling on veterans education benefits could provide an extra year of federal tuition payments to millions of student veterans, but when officials might start doling out the payouts — if at all — remains unclear.

In the 7-2 ruling, justices said that veterans can use both the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and Montgomery GI Bill benefits to pay for college classes if they meet eligibility for both programs.

Veterans Affairs officials had required veterans attending school to choose one and forfeit the other. But in the opinion for the majority of the court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson stated that “if service members serve for long enough, they may be entitled to both.”

As a result, advocates say, significant changes in how veterans education benefits are paid out could happen in the next few months.

“That ruling is pretty clear — you can use both,” said retired Lt. Col. Elizabeth Kubala, executive director of Syracuse University’s Veterans Legal Clinic. “When there is a significant ruling like this, then a federal agency needs to take steps to implement it. So it will be interesting to see what VA does next.”

In a statement, Veterans Affairs officials said they are still reviewing the decision. Lawyers involved in the case have said as many as 1.7 million veterans could immediately qualify for more education benefits under the ruling, but acknowledge that it could be a while before anyone sees that money.

“I fear that VA will try to take a very narrow view in interpreting this,” said Timothy McHugh, an attorney with the law firm Troutman Pepper, which handled the case. “And if they do take that position, that will be the next legal fight.”

How much could student vets get?

Most veterans attending college today with federal financial support use the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, a generous benefit passed in 2008 that awards eligible veterans 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance.

To be eligible for the full Post-9/11 benefits, troops need to have served at least three years on active duty since 2001. Eligibility to transfer the benefit to a spouse or child requires additional years of service.

Over the course of a four-year degree program, the total value of the Post-9/11 GI Bill package can exceed $200,000, depending on an individual’s school and housing situation.

The Montgomery GI Bill program isn’t quite as generous. Eligible veterans can receive up to $2,358 for tuition costs a month, or about $113,000 over the course of a four-year degree. There is no housing stipend or other financial help.

To be eligible for that benefit, veterans needed to serve at least three years on active duty and pay into the Montgomery GI Bill program, at a cost of $100 a month for their first year in the ranks.

Until now, VA officials have made veterans choose one of the two programs, saying that federal rules prohibit individuals from drawing upon both.

But Tuesday’s reversal of that stance by the Supreme Court centered on Jim Rudisill, a 43-year-old Army veteran who tried to use both and sued when VA officials blocked that move.

In his case, Rudisill served eight years on active duty over several different non-consecutive enlistments. He used parts of both benefits, but after hitting the 36-month limit, was told that he could not access any additional education stipends.

Federal rules limit any individual from receiving two education benefits at the same time, or receiving more than 48 months of education benefits. But even with that cap, Rudisill argued that he was entitled to 12 more months of payouts.

For veterans who have exhausted their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, the ruling could mean an additional 12 months of Montgomery GI Bill payouts to finish a degree program or start a new one, provided they served at least six years on active duty (three years each to qualify separately for the two programs).

For veterans who haven’t yet tapped into either benefit, the ruling could set off a complicated calculus of which stipends to use or save, depending on personal and family education goals.

An individual could potentially trigger the Montgomery GI Bill to attend community college classes while saving the Post-9/11 GI Bill for an eligible dependent in the future, since the latter benefit can be transferred while the Montgomery GI Bill cannot.

When will students get answers?

McHugh said his firm already has potential clients ready to sue the government if they refuse to allow that benefit flexibility.

“It’s clear from this ruling that everyone who served six years or more and was told they couldn’t access both [benefits] now has 12 additional months of benefits coming,” he said. “The sky is the limit.”

In previous court filings, VA officials estimated that only a few thousand veterans would qualify for both benefits if Rudisill won his case, saying that multiple periods of service before and after 2001 made his situation unusual.

But Kubala said Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling does not make that distinction. As such, anyone who served six years since 2001 could be eligible for the expanded benefits, a much larger pool.

“And so it’s going to be important for VA to offer clear and quick guidance on this issue,” she said. “VA is a large federal agency and these reviews take time. But given how many vets could potentially use these benefits as early as this fall, they need to act quickly.”

Veterans Affairs officials have not given a timeline for when they may issue new guidance. In a statement, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said the department is “committed to helping veterans get the world-class education they’ve earned so they can continue successful careers after leaving the military.”

For now, that leaves outside advocates without any specifics to give to veterans about what education benefits they may have available in the future.

In a message to members this week, officials from Student Veterans of America said they are working with VA leaders, lawyers and education staff on the potential impact of the situation. Leaders from Veterans Education Success in a statement said the ruling should allow veterans to access both benefits “in direct contrast to how the Department of Veterans Affairs has administered the programs.”

VA already pays out more than $8 billion in education payments annually. The Supreme Court could potentially add hundreds of millions more to that total, although actual spending will depend on how many veterans opt to continue their college classes.

For now, the only veteran clearly covered by the ruling appears to be Rudisill, who had hoped to use the extra education benefits to attend Yale Divinity School and become an Army chaplain.

Rudisill said he no longer expects to use the stipend for that, but he hopes other veterans are afforded those kinds of opportunities.

“This fight was for all military veterans who, like me, were denied what they were promised after their service to our country,” he said in a statement. “It has been humbling to represent the veterans’ community, and I am so grateful for my legal team and the court’s decision here.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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