War widows dispute tax on benefits

By Kimberly Hefling
Thursday, February 10, 2011; A17

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."

Among the widows, Green and the approximately 700 others who have remarried after age 57 are considered the lucky ones because at least they no longer have one benefit subtracted from the other.

Other surviving spouses - most of whom lose about $1,000 a month because of the current setup - have fought for years on Capitol Hill.

The Gold Star Wives of America, a congressionally chartered group of military widows, supports legislation backed by the senators and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) that would eliminate the offset and not require widows to pay back premiums previously refunded. They argue the survivors have spent years living without the benefit of the annuity and it is cheaper for the government to forgo the premiums than manually calculate what's owed.

The main hurdle to eliminating the benefit offset is cash. It would cost the government about $6.7 billion over a decade to let the widows collect both benefits.

The Defense Department has long said there was never an expectation that both programs would be provided at the same time. Clifford Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel, told Congress last year that eliminating the offset would create inequities in its benefits programs.

The widows disagree. Most of the affected survivors' spouses paid on average 6.5 percent of their retirement pay - or about $100 a month or more - for the annuity. The service members died thinking their spouses would benefit from it, the widows say, just as if they had bought a private life insurance policy. The idea that insurance benefits would be reduced if the husband died from a service-related cause and the widow was receiving survivor benefits was never explained to them, they say.

"Nobody could see the train wrecking," said Vivianne Wersel, chairwoman of government relations at Gold Star Wives, whose husband died in 2005, days after returning from a second tour in Iraq. "They had no idea. It wasn't until a death they realized they weren't getting what their husbands thought they'd be getting."

For the past several years, a measure to eliminate the offset has passed in the Senate, only to be dropped when House and Senate negotiators got together in private to hash out defense spending.

Instead, Congress in recent years has given the surviving spouses small legislative victories that in retrospect only seem to have created new inequities, said Steve Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel who is the director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America.

One of those victories was the 57-and-older remarriage rule, which at first the Defense Department did not recognize. Three of the widows later successfully sued, and in 2009 the Defense Department issued new guidance saying surviving spouses 57 and older who remarry wouldn't be subjected to the offset.

At the time of the court ruling in the widows' favor, even the federal appellate judge who sided with them questioned what Congress was thinking in only helping such a small subset of the widows. Noting that the service member paid for one benefit with premiums and the other with his life, Judge George W. Miller wrote, "Perhaps it was recognition that the political process is the art of the possible, and that prudence counseled against making the perfect the enemy of the good."

Another small win on Capitol Hill gave the widows affected by the offset a taxable $50 a month starting in 2010. Instead of making the widows happy, however, many felt Congress was acknowledging that they'd been wronged but wasn't ponying up the money to fix the problem properly.

"What am I supposed to do with this except for put it in my gas tank and drive down to your office to complain?" said Suzanne Gerstner, 43, of Brandon, Fla., a mother of three whose husband died in 2005 of cancer linked to his 20 years of Air Force service. "Every little bit helps. Don't get me wrong, but that's kind of insulting."

- Associated Press

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