This is written by Robin Hood and Attorney that we do Recommend.
Public Service Announcement re VSOs, Agents, Attorneys, and entities that are NOT one of those things.
It is AGAINST THE LAW to assist in the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims as a VSO/attorney/agent if they aren't accredited by the VA. 38 CFR 14.629. is the regulation, and 38 USC 5901 is the actual statute.
With regard to charging fees, the circumstances that a fee can be charged are described in 38 CFR 14.636. It boils down to a percentage of past due benefits (often called a retro) in the context of an appeal (where a supplemental claim or higher-level review also counts as an appeal if it's within a year of a previous decision). 20 percent is presumed reasonable (and is what me and most others charge), although up to 33 and a third percent is ALLOWED if everybody agrees with it on a case by case basis. One of the nice things about charging 20 percent is that it's a pretty small fraction and the VA will withhold that 20 percent from the retro and pay it to the attorney after a 60-day period for the Veteran to object. "That lousy no good sapsucker attorney didn't do NOTHING for me, why is VA holding 20 percent of my money out for him??!?!" I've been doing this a long time and have had fees objected to exactly ONCE.
What you CAN NOT DO is charge somebody for helping with a new fresh claim (possibly arguable in the case of a Supplemental Claim of an old issue), because there's no "past due benefits" if the benefits is granted. It's just "benefits." You gotta give the VA "one bite at the apple", at least one chance to do the right thing before you can collect a fee for helping somebody.
And what you ABSOLUTELY CAN NOT DO is charge somebody a percentage of their BENEFITS GOING FORWARD. That is unethical as hell. It is also apparently the business model of some of these places. Why isn't the VA Office of General Counsel clouding up and raining on these folks? Because they aren't accredited, they don't have jurisdiction, and it falls to the State and Federal attorneys to do something about it, and they have no idea how this works, so enforcement is rare.
What you CAN do is pay a doctor for a nexus opinion, because that is creating some evidence that you use with your claim. Your private doctor might help you out for free, or you may have to find a hired gun doctor that needs to be paid for taking the time to review your records and understand the issues and write up a decent medical opinion. We all gotta make a living. The doctor can't charge you a percentage contingent on winning your case though.
This is actually where attorneys (and I guess agents) really shine. Some firms have been doign this long enough that they have cash reserves that they can use to "front" case costs like getting a medical opinion, or attorneys may have a personal injury practice that is doing well that means they have money for doctors. The cost of the doctor is billed as a case cost and if the case is won, the client pays the case cost (which is on top of the 20 percent fee in my case). A grand or two for a medical opinion that results in a five or six figure retro plus hundreds or thousands of dollars a month for life from then on makes it some of the best money they've ever spent.
Unaccredited pension poachers aren't going to be able to do this for you. Not legally, not ethically. Also, VSOs can't front money for exams/opinions this way.
So, what's the too long/didn't read version? If someone is offering to help you in some way and they don't give you a 21-22 or 21-22a form to sign, RUN. Get a VSO, who will help you for free. Get an attorney/agent who can often pay for experts but be prepared for an 80/20 split plus costs if you win.