Military Update: Differing views on restored widow benefits
Members and staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee are confident they took a first step late last year toward ending a lesser-known “ban on concurrent receipt,” the one that reduces survivor benefit payments to widows and widowers of military retirees.
But Defense Department lawyers are just as confident, a Pentagon source said, that the bill’s language missed its mark, and does not end for a small group of widows the dollar-for-dollar offset in military Survivor Benefit Plan payments mandated when widows also receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At stake in how the new law is interpreted is an average of $9,204 in annual survivor benefits for about 400 widows of military retirees who died from service-connected disabilities. But Rep. Henry Brown Jr., R-S.C., said it’s also a symbolic first step toward ending the DIC-triggered SBP offset for 44,000 dual-eligible surviving spouses of retirees.
Military retirees buy SBP coverage so their surviving spouses can continue to receive a portion of retired pay after retirees die. The widow of any veteran, including a military retiree, also can be eligible for DIC, which pays at a minimum $967 a month, if the veteran died from a service-related injury or illness.
But widows of military retirees see their SBP reduced dollar for dollar by the amount drawn in tax-free DIC.
The current controversy is over a provision in the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003, which was signed into law Dec. 16. For years, widows who remarried lost their DIC entitlement. But Section 101 of the new benefit package [Public Law 108-183] allows veterans’ surviving spouses who remarry at 57 or older to retain DIC.
Indeed, widows who remarried at 57 or older, and lost DIC, have until Dec. 16, 2004, to reapply [Use VA Form 21-686c]. More than 12,000 widows are said to qualify, but officials estimate fewer than 15 percent will know to apply, even after an aggressive public information campaign. An estimated 350 DIC-eligible widows a year remarry after age 56, and therefore stand to gain from the bill.
The controversy for widows of military retirees arises in paragraph B of Section 101. It says individuals made eligible for DIC under the provision, by reason of their “status as the surviving spouse of a veteran,” should see no reduction in other federal benefits as a result of this provision.
Brown, chairman of the House veterans’ benefits subcommittee, said in a phone interview that the paragraph was added specifically to avoid for this group of widows a reduction in SBP benefit once DIC is restored.
“We put a special paragraph in there to, basically, get [the Defense Department] to do that,” Brown said. “This was to get the camel’s nose under the tent, sort of like we did with concurrent receipt” for disabled retirees.
“We did the Purple Heart folks first and then we went back to address anybody with a [combat-related] disability. Then last year we said anybody up to 50 percent [disabled] even outside of combat” will be able, within 10 years, to draw both full retired pay and VA disability compensation.
Peter Dickinson, communications director for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, agreed that eliminating the offset in SBP for DIC-eligible widows who remarry after age 56 was the committee’s intent.
“We wanted to make sure that this group did not see this new benefit come in, and then lose another benefit,” he said.