Despite the repeal of the “widows tax” in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), there is still work to be done for Congress to improve equity for survivor benefits. MOAA and The Military Coalition, a group of military and veterans service organizations representing a combined 5.5 million-plus membership, continue to advocate for the survivor community and seek legislation to address existing inequities.
One such piece of legislation making its way through both the House and Senate will do just that by lowering the so-called “remarriage penalty” and allowing more survivors of seriously disabled veterans to receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits. Another would raise the DIC rate, and a third combines the two bills.
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The Caring for the Survivors and Families of Veterans Act, S. 4594, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), mirrors the Surviving Families Benefit Expansion Act, H.R. 8559, introduced in the House by Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.). Both pieces of legislation have Republican cosponsors. If passed by both chambers and signed by the president, they would:
- Lower the remarriage penalty from 57 to 55. This would allow survivors who remarry younger to continue receiving DIC benefits, as well as maintain eligibility for VA-backed home loans and dependent educational assistance.
- Reduce the amount of time for a veteran to be totally disabled from 10 years to five for the surviving spouse to receive DIC.
Officials estimate these changes would cost hundreds of millions of dollars – a figure that may not make the legislation possible in the current session, but is achievable for the 117th Congress, which begins in 2021.
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“Families who lost their loved ones in the line of duty — or from a service-related injury or illness —deserve economic security in return for the sacrifices they’ve made,” said Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “My legislation will provide more surviving family members with the financial assistance they’ve earned, by fixing outdated policies and broadening eligibility for benefits. It’ll also rid the current system of bureaucratic red tape to ensure that no survivor is forced to put their life on hold in order to retain earned benefits.”
Hayes echoed those sentiments, saying “the death of a servicemember should never lead a family to financial hardship.”
“This legislation will expand the distribution of Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits to more surviving spouses and family members, by updating policies and broadening eligibility for benefits,” she added. “I thank Senator Tester for his continued partnership in this effort and look forward to working together to ensure benefits are expanded and the needs and well-being of veterans and their families are prioritized.”
What About DIC Improvement?
While the above measures would expand the pool of DIC recipients, two other bills – S. 1047 and H.R. 3221, both entitled the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation Improvement Act of 2019 – would raise the amount all DIC beneficiaries receive.
The legislation would boost DIC to 55% of the compensation of a 100% disabled veteran, up from the current 43%. This is on par with other federal survivor programs. Correcting this injustice is long overdue. Unfortunately, the initial cost estimate for this legislation was very high – roughly $20 billion over 10 years.
[MORE FROM MOAA: Dependency and Indemnity Compensation]
This legislation is worthy of your support with a phone call and correspondence to your lawmaker. Equally worthy is legislation that wrapped all three efforts under one bill: H.R. 6933, the Caring for Survivors Act of 2020, was reintroduced by Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.) this year and would provide the DIC boost and the benefits from the Tester/Hayes bills. It may prove more effective to break up these objectives into an incremental approach, affording the possibility of a small win in the current financial deficit environment.
MOAA will continue to advocate for these improvements in support of our survivor community.
(A previous version of this article was published on Oct. 13, 2020)