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Vets' spouses lose a death benefit by staying single

Nona Chubboy's husband, an officer in the Navy, paid the premiums on a government insurance policy for years, expecting it to help his wife if he died.

Her husband, Louis, died of cancer linked to military atomic testing. But the only way Chubboy can collect the benefit is to do something she finds disloyal to her spouse's memory.

The Tierra Verde woman would have to remarry.

In a seemingly absurd quirk of federal laws on death benefits, up to 54,000 military widows and widowers around the nation are losing up to $13,000 a year in death benefits unless they take another walk down the aisle after age 57.

A federal appeals court in a recent decision made note of the unusual condition, saying, "Perhaps Congress intended to encourage marriage for older surviving spouses."

To Chubboy, 80, whose husband died in 1981 at age 54, Uncle Sam is punishing her for standing by her man.

"You love your husband and you are a dutiful wife to him," she said. "Now they're saying to go out and find a new one if you want this money. But I don't want another man. I found the best of the litter."

Lawyers who represented the Department of Defense in a case in which military widows sought lost benefits declined to comment. And a representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs with knowledge of the benefit quirk could not be reached.

But in court papers, government lawyers say they are simply following the law, though they, too, have told an appeals court that the marriage rule is "an absurd result."

Veterans advocates say the government is treating surviving spouses who don't remarry unfairly.

"It's pretty bizarre," said Vivianne Wersel, chairwoman of the governmental relations committee of the Gold Star Wives of America Inc. "It's unethical and immoral that we're forced to have to choose another man to receive what our spouses worked so hard for."

The history of this odd provision of federal law gets a little complicated.

The dispute involves monthly payments from two government programs that pay benefits to the surviving spouses or children of veterans: the Survivor Benefit Plan and the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program.

The DIC is administered by the VA and pays the spouse of a veteran who dies on active duty or of a service-connected illness or injury after retirement from the military. The SBP, administered by the Pentagon, is akin to a life insurance annuity paid to the spouse or children of active-duty troops or veterans who die for any reason.

Active-duty troops are automatically covered by SBP. But when they retire, they must opt to stay in the program and pay premiums.

The government, however, has long barred spouses from collecting both benefits at the same time, regardless of age or marital status. So Uncle Sam subtracts whatever a spouse was owed under the DIC from the payment owed under the SBP — a loss of $1,154 a month for most spouses.

Here's where it gets even more confusing.

Congress passed a law in 2003 that said the surviving spouses of veterans could collect both SBP and DIC at the same time. But there was one condition: Spouses could only do so if they remarried after age 57.

Congress was trying to fix an unrelated problem: DIC payments stopped if a spouse remarried.

The bottom line: The only way to get both benefits is to find a new spouse after your 57th birthday.

If a veteran's children are designated as beneficiaries in the SBP program, a spouse can get around the provision. Then the monthly payment would be made to the children via the surviving spouse. And the spouse could still get DIC money.

But when the kids turn 18, the payments would stop.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has worked for several years to repeal the ban on the simultaneous receipt of SBP and DIC benefits for all surviving spouses, regardless of their age or marital status.

"They're two separate benefits," Nelson said in an interview last week. "Why should they offset one another? You can't make an argument for that with a straight face."

Nelson, however, said the problem is funding, which is why his efforts to repeal the offset have been defeated in previous years. One estimate said the 10-year cost of a complete repeal would be $7 billion.

"We'll try again next year," he said.

Critics say that veterans would never have signed up for the SBP insurance program if they had known.

Freda Schroeppel, 73, of Brooksville, said she attended her husband's benefits briefing before he retired from the Air Force after 35 years in 1975. She said nobody told them both benefits could not be collected at the same time.

Her husband died in 2003 of a service-connected illness, and sure enough, Schroeppel said, the government deducts $1,154 from the check it sends her every month.

"Nobody should have to get married to collect a benefit they deserve," she said. "The insurance was bought and paid for."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Vets' spouses lose a death benefit by staying single 11/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 14, 2009 8:28pm]
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