Since its inception in 1972, the Survivor Benefit Plan has supported surviving spouses, while inadvertently chaining them to the bureaucracy their spouses died to protect. Established policies have treated such benefits as welfare payments, resulting in surviving spouses and families losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of owed insurance disbursements, a loss known as the “widow’s tax.”
How could this happen?
A concurrent receipt states that one individual cannot receive two forms of federal funds for the same thing. For years, surviving families have had to pay what is known as the “widow’s tax,” otherwise known as the SBP-DIC offset. For every dollar paid out to them via the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, one dollar is deducted from the SBP insurance benefit, essentially wiping out the payment entirely.
“The SBP is, in essence, an insurance plan that is purchased by the retiree, or the service member pays for it with their life if they die on active duty,” said Kelly Hruska, the government relations director of the National Military Family Association. “It is a Department of Defense program. Where the DIC [was established] to indemnify the government if the service member should die for a service-connected reason. It’s a Department of Veterans Affairs program. Two payments from two different agencies for two different purposes.”
Recent legislation to correct the offset has gained traction in 2019.
“The support this year has been astronomically bigger. The most cosponsors we have had on the Senate side has been around 60, in the two-year window of Congress. We are only six months into the current Congress and we have 75 cosponsors. In 20 years we have not gotten close to the support we have now,” said Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director for policy and legislation of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
However, on June 27, 2019, the Senate decided not to include the Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act of 2019 into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Historically, this bill often gets passed because of its bipartisan support. By not including it, the legislation didn’t get the slam dunk many of its supporters think it should have.
The MWTEA has a hefty price tag. Haycock says it will cost about 5.4 to 5.7 billion over 10 years.
“I never really understood exactly why this has gone on as long as it has,” said Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala. “Yeah, we’ve got budget issues, but at the same time these families have paid this money in. They are not getting their full benefit. It’s almost as though the government has been borrowing money from them. We just need to pay it back.”
Jones has led a charge to fight for surviving spouses and families by introducing the MWTEA of 2019. Despite recent setbacks and historical precedent, he says he is hopeful it will be added to the Congressional defense appropriation.
Similar bills have been introduced time and time again, but are never passed. The cost of supporting surviving spouses may be more than some politicians are willing to spend. The funds that would be used to pay the over 65,000 survivors would have to be deducted from existing programs, according to Haycock. And no one wants to put their programs on the chopping block.
The human toll
“As a military spouse you are giving up your careers or taking time out of your career,” said Theresa Jones, a Gold Star widow. “There are some payouts that are supposed to set you up, but in talking to military families, they only get you so far. You have to start coming up with a Plan B.”
Theresa Jones lost her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones, when his MH-60 helicopter crashed into the Red Sea in September 2013.
Theresa Jones is not alone in her frustration. She and many other survivors have stepped up their media footprint in order to make a change. They hope that not only will their grassroots effort make daily life more manageable, but will also prevent future generations of survivors from fighting the same battle.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the benefit system and what life looks like post-loss. I don’t think any of us are looking for handouts or think that we are entitled to things. They [military members] assume that their family will be taken care of,” Theresa Jones continued.
More often than not, surviving families spend significant time battling their spouses’ former employer. In some instances, the requests begin within hours of being informed of loss and does not relent with time. In Theresa Jones’ case, she was asked to sign papers the day she was notified.
How you can help?
Tax issues are not often the stuff of headlines. They seldom go viral. But Doug Jones hopes this will not remain true as a version of his bill will be presented to the House of Representatives this summer.
“Join the movement!” he said. “Contact your representative and your two senators. Express how important this is. This is not really a budget issue. This is an issue of our duty to military families and what we owe them.”
The House of Representatives is likely to vote to include the repeal of the widow’s tax in the NDAA after they return from the Fourth of July recess. To help support Gold Star families, reach out to your representative(s) or senators.Read comments