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

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

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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.

About Susie Madrak

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