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Adding Insult To Injury, Surviving Military Spouses Can't Get Retirement Benefits Unless They Remarry After 57

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Bob Geiger has an upsetting piece at Huffington Post about something called the "Widow's Tax," a government practice that financially penalizes surviving spouses of soldiers killed in battle.

Kristen Fenty knows a thing or two about pain and struggle.

Like all Gold Star Wives -- women whose spouses have died or been killed while on active duty in the U.S. military -- she has learned to live with the grief of losing her life partner, the disintegration of the life she imagined and, like so many war widows, the burden of instantly becoming a single parent and shepherding a child through the loss of her father.

What Kristen Fenty didn't expect was six years of getting raked over bureaucratic coals in simply trying to receive and keep the benefits to which surviving military families are entitled.

Fenty, whose husband Army Lt. Col. Joseph Fenty Jr. was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2006, is fighting just such a battle and has become an activist on behalf of other surviving military spouses grappling with a system that seems geared toward nickel and diming widows who have already sacrificed so much.

"It was a very difficult time," Fenty said of the time immediately after Joe was killed. "And I had just had a baby 28 days before my husband's death."

At issue is a byzantine parsing of government programs that essentially eliminates one survivor's benefit for another, despite the distinct purpose of each and their origin in entirely separate entities. Specifically, Fenty and Gold Star Wives are fighting a government practice that offsets payments from the Defense Department's Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) -- a survivor benefit collected through death in service or purchased through post-retirement premium payments -- with the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) death benefit, paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs to spouses who have lost a husband or wife at war.

What Fenty and so many others have discovered is that, according to the U.S. government, receiving payments from both programs constitutes a kind of double-dipping and that a dollar-for-dollar offset must take place to prevent that.

To civilians, this is analogous to someone telling us after losing our spouse that we can have his or her retirement money or their life insurance -- but not both. Of course, this would be considered an outrage and an earned-benefits rip-off, but for military families, this evidently makes complete sense to the government.

It really is a crazy system, and it's even more infuriating when you see posturing politicians slashing programs for the poor to protect the military budget. I guess they just mean the part that goes to wastefully expensive military toys (and returned to them via campaign contributions), and not the very real human needs of the people who serve in the military. The part that really makes me angry? Congress says they "don't have the money" to fix this. That's baloney. Always money for war, always money for banks—but never enough money for those inconvenient people who get caught in the wheels.

Here's the craziness of this system:

  • The annuity payment (for which you and your spouse paid premiums) is reduced by the amount of the monthly survivor benefit.
  • To qualify for the retirement program, the surviving spouse can only remarry if they are 57 or older. Widows who never remarry don't see a dime.
  • Just to make it even more complicated, the government decided if you're not going to get the annuity, they're at least going to give you your premiums back. But if you then get remarried after you're 57, and now you're eligible for the benefit, you have to repay those premiums. Oy.

Supporting our troops—and their families? Doesn't sound like it.

by on May. 3, 2012 at 3:18 AM
Replies (21-25):
by Member on May. 3, 2012 at 11:36 PM

We also have additional life insurance policy on dh along with the SGLI.  I wanted to make sure that we were taken care of financially just in case.  I don't really understand why spouses especially those who have children don't have additional life insurance.  I know some spouses do but it seems like the majority of people I run across think that the SGLI alone will be enough to survive and that the military will take care of them for life.

Quoting radioheid:

 SGLI alone pays up to $400,000. I'm really not seeing the uproar. Never mind all of these other programs out there, SGLI alone should be more than enough money to support oneself and her children for at least a couple of years, while rebuilding her life.

Sorry, but my sympathy is limited to that which you would express toward someone who has lost a spouse. As far as the money is concerned, I think they are getting a fair shake.


by Jes on May. 4, 2012 at 1:06 AM
1 mom liked this
Thanks! I just knew the minimum was 6 weeks when I was a kid.

(back in the 80's)...

Quoting musicmom08:

 Read the following it's under Access to Veterans Benefits:

"Widows are also allowed to continue residing in their existing base housing, or to continue receiving their off-base housing allowance, for one year after the servicemember's death."

Quoting Mommy_of_Riley:

That is ILLEGAL.

The base MUST give surviving spouses 6 WEEKS to find a new home and move. They must also pay for the moving costs.

Quoting yourspecialkid:

 Thank you for posting this.

Unfortunately this is not new and is just part of a multi-layer problem.  I have seen a wife and small children turned out of base housing just 2 weeks after the actual death of the husband..I can't even imagine such a thing.  I think I would still be too grief stricken to give such a major decision the right amount of thought.

I have heard of wives fighting for months just to get the benefits they are entitled to started.

I am a very strong person, but when my husband deployed the first time I tapped my FIL to be there to help me make the big decisions if my dh was killed. 

I would like to see a FLOTUS really take up the military family as a know do more than scratch the surface...use her influence to bring some issues into the light and thus bring about some changes.


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by Kellie on May. 4, 2012 at 1:52 AM

I'm totally confused, and hope to never have to figure it out. 

by Ruby Member on May. 4, 2012 at 3:49 AM

All the more reason I would NEVER EVER married a man in the military. It is just one screw over after another.

by Jenn on May. 4, 2012 at 8:18 AM


Quoting fluffball80:

This is the very reason why I tell young military wives that I run into that they need to live below their means and have money in a savings account.  I don't know of anyone who has been in the military who at one point in their careers had finance mess up. 

Quoting jehosoba84:


Quoting rotPferd:


Quoting jehosoba84:

 Ugh. The military blows(not the members themselves). Congress blows. What's new? It all makes me sick.

My good friend's dh was in the service and she was living off-base nearby. Many many months would go by without him even being paid becasue of glitches in their system that they took their sweet ass time about fixing. In the mean-time, she had to deal with her water/electricity being shut off and their credit being trashed because of it.

 She could have gone to finance and had them send a letter to her utilities and credit companies and they would have to comply.

 She did. But what was she going to buy food and toilet paper with? It is a HUGE pain in the ass to have to go thru any military channels for this kind of thing. And what about her credit card bills?  You get one late or non-payment and they raise your apr to 30 friggin percent and send a report to the credit bureau. That's not an easy thing to erase with a letter from finance sayin "opps, our bad."


 That is good advice, but in her case, they had JUST gotten married, and JUST moved there. There was no time to save.

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