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Pacific edition, Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jacqueline Peters, widow of a retired Army officer, only recently grasped how "ludicrous" the law that limits Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments to surviving spouses of military members who either die in retirement from service-related ailments or die while on active duty has become.

These survivors qualify for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which pays a basic benefit of $1,154 a month. But if they also are covered by military SBP, then the SBP must be reduced by an amount equal to DIC. Widows then are refunded the premiums their husbands had paid for the portion of SBP being offset.

But now there is an exception, the result of a subtle change in law six years ago. Defense pay officials ignored the change until three military widows won a lawsuit last year and forced the department to acknowledge what Congress had done. The quirky bottom line is that military widows who remarry after age 57 are exempt from the SBP-DIC offset.

The situation, says Peters of Newport News, Va., is a little unreal.

"Someone who remarries is certainly not as in need of [full SBP] as is a widow living on a fixed income," she said.

The offset exemption so far applies to just 704 widows, say Defense officials. All of them began to draw their full SBP again either this month or back as early as February. Their SBP is paid in full in addition to their DIC.

Many of these 704 widows also will get SBP retroactive payments back to Dec. 16, 2003, the date Congress, whether lawmakers knew it or not, lifted the ban on concurrent receipt of both DIC and SBP for this select group.

Legislation to wholly repeal the offset has been introduced in every recent Congress. The current Senate bill from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has 55 co-sponsors. The House bill from Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, has 320. But the pattern has been that the Senate will pass Nelson’s bill with overwhelming support and then it will get tossed by a House-Senate conference committee as being unfunded.

The armed services committees just haven’t found the money to pay for it. They point to pay-as-you-go budget rules that bar any increase in spending on a new entitlement without an equal offset to existing entitlements.

Last month, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., introduced a discharge petition to try to pull the SBP-DIC offset repeal bill out of the armed services committee for a floor vote. The idea is to match support from the Senate.

A total of 216 signatures are needed for the petition to succeed. It’s still unclear whether Jones will get that many members to defy the committee leadership even with the bill having 330 co-sponsors.

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