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Surviving military spouses hit with 'widows' tax'

Military widows can't collect both survivor benefits and benefits from an annuity bought by the dead veteran -- unless they remarry after they're 57.

By Teresa Mears Feb 9, 2011 3:39PM

This article is by Kimberly Hefling of The Associated Press.


Tens of thousands of the nation's war widows find it perplexing and downright disrespectful to their late military husbands: In order to fully collect on insurance their husbands bought for them when alive, they must marry another man.


And to qualify, the widows must remarry when they are 57 or older. Those who remarry earlier miss out, as do widows who never remarry.


At the heart of the issue is a government policy known as the "widows' tax." It says a military spouse whose loved one dies from a service-related cause can't collect both survivor's benefits and the full annuity benefits from insurance the couple bought from the Defense Department at retirement. Instead, the amount of the annuity payment is reduced by the amount of the monthly survivor benefit.


Time after time, members of Congress have promised to help the 55,000 affected widows, but laws passed to help them have only created a more complicated system that's left many of them confused and angry.


So what's remarriage got to do with it? Very little, as it turns out. The marriage condition was stuck into the law by Congress as it attempted to help the survivors retain certain benefits if they remarried late in life, as is the case with other similar federal annuities. Because Congress hasn't been able to come up with the money to help all the widows, relief has been limited to that group. The result is an all but incomprehensible mess.


"I've never even wanted to date, much less remarry," said Nichole Haycock, a mother of three teenagers in Lawton, Okla., whose 38-year-old military husband died in 2002. "I already married the love of my life. Why would you bring that as a factor?"


And there's yet another wrinkle that leaves even some of those who benefit from the system -- women 57 and over who have found love a second time and remarried -- not completely happy.


For war widows who were denied the full benefits of their military insurance, the government sought to help by giving them back the premiums their spouses had paid for the policies. But if a widow then remarries at age 57 or older, becoming eligible for the benefit, she can only get it by repaying the insurance premiums the government had refunded to her.


Freda Schroeppel Green, 74, whose late husband served in Vietnam and died of a service-connected disability after 30 years in the Air Force, said she was surprised after remarrying last year to receive a bill from the government to repay more than $41,000 in insurance premiums. Those premiums had been refunded to her after his 2003 death because at that time she wasn't able to receive the full benefit of the annuity.


"It doesn't make any sense to me," said Green, of Brooksville, Fla. "Why did they send the premiums that he paid and now they want it back?"


It also doesn't make sense to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and 10 other senators who last week filed legislation to help the widows.


"This has always been an issue of the military doing the right thing and living up to its promises," Nelson said in a statement. "These policies were bought by servicemen and women to make sure their loved ones would be taken care of following their deaths. Not only is it a promise the government hasn't kept, but now it's sending bills to survivors. That's just outrageous."


Among the widows, Green and the approximately 700 who have remarried after age 57 are considered the lucky ones because at least they no longer have one benefit subtracted from the other.


Other surviving spouses -- most of whom lose about $1,000 a month because of the current setup -- have fought for years on Capitol Hill.


The Gold Star Wives of America, a congressionally chartered group of military widows, supports legislation backed by the senators and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., that would eliminate the offset and not require widows to pay back premiums previously refunded. They argue the survivors have spent years living without the benefit of the annuity and it is cheaper for the government to forgo the premiums than manually calculate what's owed.


The main hurdle to eliminating the benefit offset is cash. It would cost the government an estimated $6.7 billion over a decade to allow the widows to collect both benefits in full.


The Defense Department has long said there was never an expectation that both programs would be provided at the same time. Clifford Stanley, the defense undersecretary for personnel, told Congress last year that eliminating the offset would create inequities in its benefits programs.


The widows disagree. Most of the affected survivors' spouses paid on average 6.5% of their retirement pay -- or about $100 a month or more -- for the annuity. The service members died thinking their spouses would benefit from it, the widows say, just as if they had bought a private life insurance policy. The idea that insurance benefits would be reduced if the husband died from a service-related cause and the widow was receiving survivor benefits was never explained to them, they say.


"Nobody could see the train wrecking," said Vivianne Wersel, chair of government relations at Gold Star Wives, whose husband died in 2005 days after returning from a second tour in Iraq. "They had no idea. It wasn't until a death they realized they weren't getting what their husbands thought they'd be getting."


For the past several years, a measure to eliminate the offset has passed in the Senate only to be dropped when House and Senate negotiators got together in private to hash out defense spending.


Instead, Congress in recent years has given the surviving spouses small legislative victories that in retrospect only seem to have created new inequities, said Steve Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel who is director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America.


One of those victories was the 57-and-older remarriage rule, which at first the Defense Department did not recognize. Three of the widows later successfully sued, and in 2009 the Defense Department issued new guidance saying those surviving spouses 57 and older who remarry wouldn't be subjected to the offset.


At the time of the court ruling in the widows' favor, even the federal appellate judge who sided with them questioned what Congress was thinking in only helping such a small subset of the widows. Noting that the service member paid for one benefit with premiums and the other with his life, Judge George W. Miller wrote, "Perhaps it was recognition that the political process is the art of the possible, and that prudence counseled against making the perfect the enemy of the good."


Another small win on Capitol Hill gave the widows affected by the offset a taxable $50 a month starting in 2010. Instead of making the widows happy, however, many felt Congress was acknowledging that they'd been wronged but wasn't ponying up the money to fix the problem properly.


"What am I supposed to do with this except for put it in my gas tank and drive down to your office to complain?" said Suzanne Gerstner, 43, of Brandon, Fla., a mother of three whose husband died in 2005 of cancer linked to his 20 years of Air Force service. "Every little bit helps. Don't get me wrong, but that's kind of insulting."


Wilson, who chairs a House subcommittee with control over military personnel issues, said that for many of the survivors, eliminating the offset would mean the difference between scraping by and having a middle-class lifestyle. GOP House members have vowed to slash government spending, but Wilson said that even in tight times taking care of survivors is important. He supports a gradual phase-in to eliminate the current setup.


"It truly is a basis of priority," he said. "Are we going to show our appreciation for surviving spouses and children ... or spend money otherwise?"


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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This is typical of what is wrong with how Congress operates.  They put so much into one bill they don't have time to really figure out what the consequences are before they vote it in.  Each bill should stand on its own and be voted on.  It may take more time, but then isn't that why we elected our representatives?   They need to stay in Washington and work for us every day just like what we have to do here at home.

Feb 12, 2011 11:12AM
What I will never understand is trillions are being spent on saving crooked banks and companies, but there is not money for those who gave up their most precious resource to protect our country.  I often say if you can't understand something, then someone, somewhere, is personally benefiting financially.  The web is so deceptive, no one will ever be able to figure it out.
Feb 13, 2011 5:37PM
who are these people that determine that a widow has to be 57 +/- to get to receive this benefit? or that said widow has to wait that long in the firss place to have to put up with being told she ahs to wait YEARS before she can collect for the mistakes of the KONGRESS? where aree the league of woman voters when you need them to run their stupid mouthes? always talking the wrong thoughts?! never on the subject! ilitary woman need to run their mouthes juss like the blackes of the 60'z/woman of the 70'z and queers of the 80'z in ordrer to get anything done. you woman need to stand up to the stupid woman in the congress. make them do what they are suspose to do. the woman of the viet-nam era are still waiting for the ****S IN THE PENTAGONFGG TO GIVE THEM BACK THEIR HUSBANDS?! do not hesitate stand forward and the ress will follow. do not thiunk for a moment that the woman michelle will do anything for you?; she will not if you are white or spanish or oriental. be black she will get back to you. run her over and expect no heklp from the black family.yours in christ,god bless american veerans. join the legion/vfw/dav/marine corp league, something.
Feb 14, 2011 6:58PM
You can see maybe a little better of how this government has destroyed this country & those that fight their wars. Vietnam should of been a lesson to learn from just how much the government thinks of individual Americans, especially those that gave their life. You are nothing but a burdensome number. This is how the GOP thinks. They pass laws that over half do not read, by word of mouth from constituents they are told to just sign to the bill. How do you think NAFTA got passed, there was so many loop holes in just look around at all the poverty. Agent Orange the government fought that like all hell. Had no idea what this agent did to humans but used it anyway. those guys names is not on the Vietnam Wall. Taxing married couples with family, well congress didn't care about family. You know why Vietnam lasted so long and multi billions of dollars wasted... POLITICS. The system of government we have is completely broken down. You can't have any better example other then to just look all around and see who. how many & why you got screwed. I'm a Vet of Vietnam have worked all my life now on medicare & retirement & I will have nothing to do with the VA. I chose Medicare, the VA is killing guys with strokes from bypass surgeries. You have to fight every fricken inch of the way for your rights, but those in the ELITE CLUB of congress get the best treatment in health care even Dick Cheney a DRAFT DODGER!
Feb 17, 2011 8:28PM

So it looks like our elected officals are protecting a insurance company again. If you pay your premiums and you die you should be able to collect the benefit. The lobbyist have paid our elected officials to put these loop holes in so they don’t have to pay. These programs forces retiring military member to purchase this insurance. It may serve a purpose after the service members die but they should not be forced to purchase something they don’t need when they first retire. This program causes a hardship on those who really can’t afford it but are forced to purchase unless their spouse agree to deny coverage. These laws are passed to fleece retirees of their retirement benefits to make someone else rich in the process.


Let the retiring service members handle their family matters on their own and stop interfering with our lives after we have severed our country. Passing this useless legislation is a waste of time and money that only creates wealth for the insurance industry.  Stop making a living off the backs of the service members and the tax payers. We have done your bidding while wearing the uniform leave us alone and do your dam JOB. Serve the people that elected you not the wealthy that own you.


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