Dozens of military families have had to repay VA for GI Bill benefits
By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 30, 2020
WASHINGTON — Nearly 200 dependents of veterans in the last three years have had to repay GI Bill benefits after the service members failed to complete contract requirements, sometimes unknowingly, leaving them tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Service members who serve at least six years can transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to a dependent, typically a child or spouse. To transfer the benefits, the service member must agree to serve an additional four years. Only those currently serving can transfer benefits.
Some troops have left the service before completing their four extra years, without receiving a warning on the financial consequences. Dependents can use transferred education benefits right away, meaning if a service member later falls short with the military, the dependent must repay the Department of Veterans Affairs for the money used for schooling.
When troops sign over their education benefits to others, it becomes their responsibility to serve the extra four years. Those years are not automatically added to their official military contract. If that commitment is short even a few days, it is possible dependents will owe the VA.
In some cases, the dependents say they did not totally grasp the technical details of the GI Bill transfer. The confusion often comes when the VA approves the transfer before the service member completes his or her service obligation.
“VA is paying out these benefits expecting that DOD is going to hold the service member to the extent of the contract,” said Aniela Szymanski, senior director for legal affairs and military policy at Veterans Education Success, an advocacy group. “It isn’t until later when VA is going through their records and [they] realize this person wasn’t eligible at all.”
MilConnect, the online portal for personnel files, has a large section detailing the process for transferring Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. It explains that once benefits are transferred, service members have an “obligation end date,” but it doesn’t detail the specifics. It does not make it clear that the obligation end date is four years beyond the contract with the military.
MilConnect links to a VA webpage that gives a short explanation of how service members or their dependents can fall into debt with the agency. Also on the VA’s site is a clear explanation of what obligation end date means. However, that is not shared on MilConnect.
A surprise debt
Jimmy Heustis was shocked when the VA asked him to repay $32,000 after he was given GI Bill benefits from his father, who served in the Army for over 20 years.
Heustis, 27, said VA approved him for the benefits and he earned an associate degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage in computer and information technology. He used his dad’s GI Bill benefits to pay for most of his schooling. But a year after graduation, in 2019, the VA demanded the money back, saying his father came up one year short of his service obligation when he retired in 2015.
“Those benefits have long been used,” he said. “My dad was shocked. He didn’t know what the heck the VA was talking about.”
Heustis said he doesn’t have the money. He has filed an appeal with the VA and is trying to figure out his legal options. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the VA has ceased debt collections through the end of the year.
For now, the agency is trying to negotiate a payment plan. “I still refuse to set up a repayment plan,” he said.
Veterans Education Success, which advocates for and works on higher education policy for veterans, blames the retirement process for not making it clear how much service a veteran owes. They believe DOD can easily fix the problem by updating personnel systems to spell out the exact date that satisfies the four-year extension.
Szymanski says a handful of veterans have reached out to Veterans Education Success for help.
One couple, she said, accrued a $60,000 debt after the husband retired from the Navy one weekend too early. Another veteran’s son is on the hook for $100,000 after his father retired before completing his extra four-year obligation. In these instances, the veterans did not know they owed the military an extra four years on top of the current contract they had. And there was no formal warning on their way out of the service.
For the reserve forces and National Guard, time commitments can get even murkier. Just missing a few weekend training events can put benefits into jeopardy — which can be difficult for service members to easily track.
“The service puts the entire onus on the member to keep track of that time,” Szymanski said. “For reservists, this is hyper-technical; it’s counting drill periods and days. We had one circumstance where a reservist left four drill periods shy of completing the obligation” and is now $70,000 in debt.
While the debts are shocking and some of the details are unclear, the number of debts collected by VA for erroneous benefits are low and have been declining over the past three years.
In 2019, the VA started collecting debts against 22 dependents out of 127,354 beneficiaries who received transferred benefits, according to the most recent data from the department. In 2017 and 2018, debts were collected against 62 out of 119,602 and 103 dependents out of 128,466 beneficiaries, respectively
“If service members do not fulfill that contract, VA is required by federal law to stop the benefit and attempt to collect any previous funds that were issued to the beneficiary,” Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman said in a statement. “This is the way Congress wrote the law and VA is required to adhere to it.”
The VA has sometimes had to halt benefits to dependents at the last minute, causing problems for families who had always planned to use the GI Bill to pay for college for their children.
Valdon Daniel, who retired from the Army after 25 years as a lieutenant colonel in 2013, said he was never told he would have to serve an additional four years if he wanted to transfer benefits, even after multiple retirement briefings. VA officials told him his GI Bill benefits to his three kids were set, he said.
Now he and his wife, Maria, are struggling to figure out what’s next.
Daniel, a former logistics officer, said he was told at a retirement briefing in 2013 about transferring his GI Bill but was not informed about extending his service obligation. He said the briefing was specifically intended for soldiers on their way out the door. He transferred his benefits at the briefing to his kids after finding out it was an option. A pre-retirement staff member personally walked him through the process.
Daniel said he continued to do his due diligence after he retired. In 2018 and 2019, he attended retirement seminars at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and Fort Hamilton in New York to confirm that the education benefits were safe. He said at no point during the education segments did the extra service obligation come up.
“No one has indicated to me, ever, that upon transferring these benefits to my kids that I owe another four years of service,” Daniel said, adding he could have retired later or transferred the benefits earlier if he had accurate information.
The VA approved his benefits transfer in 2013, right before he retired. He also received a letter of eligibility from VA confirming his benefits
It wasn’t until July this year that he was notified by the DOD that his service obligation end date was in June 2017, four years after he retired. Meaning his kids are no longer eligible, despite the transfer already being approved by VA. He filed an appeal with the Army requesting a reconsideration of benefits denial, saying the sudden reversal put him in undue hardship and claiming poor communication from Army personnel.
“Between 2012 and 2019, I reasonably relied on information, guidance and recommendations from the Army personnel at various retirement briefings,” a letter from Daniel to the Army Review Boards Agency states.
One of Daniel’s daughters just started her first year of school. The family does not owe the VA, because the department ceased a payout to the school before the semester started. The only thing keeping her enrolled is the initial letter of approval from VA, which shows the school she will be using GI Bill benefits.
“Right now we are scrambling to get money together to pay for the schooling,” Daniel said.
To apply to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, go to: https://www.va.gov/education/apply-for-education-benefits/application/1990E/introduction
To learn more about the details of transferring education benefits, go to: https://www.va.gov/education/transfer-post-9-11-gi-bill-benefits/