For 53,000 military widows and widowers, there is an ongoing battle.
The widows are fighting the Department of Defense for what they claim is rightfully theirs, but for years has been denied.
They are asking the Congress of the United States to right the wrong by enacting legislation.
It's complicated, but here goes.
Upon retirement from military service, retirees were given the option of purchasing an insurance plan to assure their survivors would receive some income after the death of the retiree. The plan was called the survivor benefit plan (SBP). It was introduced in 1972. Those military retirees who enrolled in the plan had 6.5 percent deducted from their monthly retirement pay.
That was to ensure that the survivor would receive 55 percent of the retiree's monthly pay in the event of the retiree's death. Many retirees paid into SBP for 20 or 30 years. SBP is still offered today to military retirees.
If the retired service member died of a service connected illness or injury, the surviving spouse was also entitled to receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs as compensation for the loss of the military spouse.
The two benefits were awarded for totally different reasons. DIC is awarded as compensation for the loss of the military spouse due to a service connected illness or injury and to some widows whose husbands died on active duty.
SBP is an annuity purchased by the military retiree for the benefit of his/her surviving spouse. It is by the Department of Defense. The amount of SBP a widow is entitled to receive depends on her husband's rank and time in service, which means that SBP amounts vary widely.
However, those widows who were awarded both DIC and SBP discovered that the SBP annuity for which the retiree had paid premiums, was reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount of DIC the survivor received. Currently this offset reduces each surviving spouse's income by approximately $1,000 per month. Some of the widows of lower ranking soldiers are entitled to only $600 or $700 per month in SBP and that amount is totally wiped out by the SBP-DIC offset.
No wonder the widows are up in arms.
Now if that isn't complicated enough, consider this.
The Veterans Benefit Act of 2003 removed the DIC offset to SBP for widows who remarried after the age of 57. But the Department of Defense refused to implement the law and continued the offset. Three members of Gold Star Wives of America protested and brought suit against the government claiming there should be no offset. They won the case last August 26 in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The DoD is now implementing the law and has begun paying concurrent SBP and DIC to those three military widows and others in like circumstances. However that landmark decision affects only about 700 DIC widows who remarried at or after the age of 57. That small group of widows also will receive thousands of dollars in back payments.
"Perhaps Congress intended to encourage marriage for older surviving spouses," said the appeals court in its decision. "Perhaps this represents a first step in an effort to eventually enact full repeal. After all, the service member paid for both benefits: SBP with premiums, DIC with his life." The decision exempts all widows who remarry after age 57 from the SBP-DIC offset. But it does not exempt those who have not remarried.
Some of the thousands of older unremarried widows who are today battling the offset are wondering if they are being punished because they elected not to remarry. And others over the age of 57 are wondering if they should tie the knot for monetary reasons.
The ramification of the appeals court ruling has left some lawmakers scratching their heads.
Two companion bills have been introduced in Congress that address the elimination of the SBP/DIC offset.
The bills are S.535 and H.R.755. The bills are identical with the same words and provisions.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (AR) and Cong. Marion Berry (AR) are among co-sponsors. The Senate voted unnanimously to include the provisions of the bills in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010.
However the jubilation of the 53,000 affected widows was dashed when they learned there is no funding to pay full SBP to the surviving spouses. The estimated cost is $6.6 billion over the next 10 years.
Though lawmakers are sympathetic, they again say there is no funding for the unpopular SBP/DIC offset. Since 2005, the Senate has voted annually to end the offset but has failed to set aside the necessary funding.
But my thinking is that hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent in other programs, so why not $6.6 billion for deserving military widows.
They aren't asking for handouts; they just want what their husbands paid for.
And they are overdue.
(Editor's note: Peggy Johnson, a military widow, is not affected by the offset. However, she knows military widows who are adversely affected and she writes in their behalf)