War widows dispute tax on benefits

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By Kimberly Hefling
Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tens of thousands of the nation's war widows find it perplexing and downright disrespectful to their late military husbands: In order to fully collect on insurance their husbands bought for them when alive, they must marry another man.

And, to qualify, the widows must remarry at age 57 or older. Those who remarry earlier miss out, as do widows who never remarry.

At the heart of the issue is a government policy known as the "widows' tax." It says a military spouse whose loved one dies from a service-related cause can't collect both survivor's benefits and the full annuity benefits from insurance the couple bought from the Defense Department at retirement. Instead, the amount of the annuity payment is reduced by the amount of the monthly survivor benefit.

Time after time, members of Congress have promised to help the 55,000 affected widows, but laws have only created a more complicated system that's left many confused and angry.

So what's remarriage got to do with it? Very little, as it turns out. The marriage condition was stuck into law by Congress as it tried to help the survivors retain certain benefits if they remarried late in life, as is the case with other similar federal annuities. Because Congress hasn't been able to come up with the money to help all the widows, relief has been limited to that group. The result is an all but incomprehensible mess.

"I've never even wanted to date, much less remarry," said Nichole Haycock, a mother of three teenagers in Lawton, Okla., whose 38-year-old military husband died in 2002. "I already married the love of my life. Why would you bring that as a factor?"

And there's yet another wrinkle that leaves even some of those who benefit from the system - women 57 and over who have found love a second time and remarried - not completely happy.

For war widows who were denied the full benefits of their military insurance, the government sought to help by giving them back the premiums their spouses had paid for the policies. But if a widow then remarries at 57 or older, becoming eligible for the benefit, she can only get it by repaying the insurance premiums the government had refunded to her.

Freda Schroeppel Green, 74, whose late husband served in Vietnam and died of a service-connected disability after 30 years in the Air Force, said she was surprised after remarrying last year to receive a bill from the government to repay more than $41,000 in insurance premiums. Those premiums had been refunded to her after his 2003 death because at that time she wasn't able to receive the full benefit of the annuity.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," said Green, of Brooksville, Fla. "Why did they send the premiums that he paid and now they want it back?"

It also doesn't make sense to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and 10 other senators who last week filed legislation to help the widows.

"This has always been an issue of the military doing the right thing and living up to its promises," Nelson said in a statement. "These policies were bought by servicemen and women to make sure their loved ones would be taken care of following their deaths. Not only is it a promise the government hasn't kept, but now it's sending bills to survivors. That's just outrageous."


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