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Military Update: Congress moving on fix to military death benefits

By: Tom Philpott
May 5, 2018 Updated: May 5, 2018 at 9:55 am
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Military retirees, their spouses and perhaps 80 percent of 320,000 survivors already able to draw benefits under the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan can take comfort in a recent report on the program by the think tank Rand Corp.

The 175-page “An Assessment of the Military Survivor Benefit Plan” was ordered by Congress and concludes that the plan is “well-structured to provide survivor benefits” and the benefits “compare well with those of public and private plans.”

Rand’s findings won’t spark the same enthusiasm from 64,000 surviving spouses who continue to see their survivor benefit cut or eliminated because they also are eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs due to how their service member or retiree died. Survivors become eligible for tax-free VA compensation — triggering the offset — if their service spouse died on active duty, active duty for training or during inactive duty training; or died as a retiree from a service-related condition; or died after being rated 100-percent disabled by the VA for at least 10 years.

Edith G. Smith has been battling to have Congress end the offset since 1999, a year after the death of her husband, Vincent, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. Powerful military associations have joined the fight since then and there have been partial victories for impacted survivors, most of whom are widows.

That current partial solution is a monthly Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance that restores to impacted survivors roughly a third, on average, of the value of lost survivor benefit coverage. Last year Congress made the expiring allowance a permanent benefit and voted to adjust the $310-a-month payment annually, starting next year, using the same percentage cost-of-living adjustment applied to military retirement and survivor benefits. The worry is that a permanent allowance will satisfy congressional leaders, leaving full repeal of the offset forever out of reach.

Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, said Congress needs “to find a way to take care of these survivors by completely eliminating the penalty that reduces their benefits.” 

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