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July 22, 2018
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Many widows blindsided by military benefit offset law

By LISA HAMMERSLY, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
This article was published April 15, 2018 at 6:00 a.m.

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — Near Amsterdam, Netherlands, on July 4, 1972, an American neighbor introduced 20-year-old Elly Boelhouwer to a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant.

John Gibbons was 25, a Vietnam veteran and the owner of a red Jaguar. The Dutch woman and the American airman married a few months later.

Over the next 45 years, they begat two children, a lifelong marriage and 40 years of military service, most of it in Fort Smith.

Then early last year, John's military service took his life. He died of cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. And Elly was further shaken by a federal law that reduces survivors' payments for military widowers and widows like herself.

Dubbed the "Widow's Tax," the law isn't a tax at all. It's a two-sentence provision, 10 U.S. Code 1451 (c)(2), that bars certain widows and widowers from collecting all of the paid-for annuities they and their spouses had counted on. The law applies only to widows and widowers of military servicemen and servicewomen who died in action or, like John Gibbons, died in retirement from service-caused illnesses.

In addition to their paid annuities, these surviving spouses qualify for a death compensation benefit known as the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The DIC amount, known as an offset, is currently $15,397 per year.

The federal "Widow's Tax" law won't let widows and widowers collect both in full. With the law in place, 64,600 military widows and widowers see their potential annuity incomes reduced. More than three of every five widows and widowers lose every dollar of their survivor annuities.

Nearly all who are affected — 99 percent — are women, according to Defense Department data. More than 85 percent are age 62 and older.

"I was outraged," Elly Gibbons said. Though she flies a 5-foot American flag over her home every day, Gibbons finds it insulting.

"Our husbands honored their commitment to their country. Now it is high time for the government to honor its commitment," she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper.

The U.S. Department of Defense offers the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuity program. Military retirees generally choose to pay in 6.5 percent of retirement compensation with the understanding that if they die first and their retirement money stops, their survivors will receive 55 percent of their retirement pay for the rest of their lives. Cause of death usually isn't a factor.

Under the 1972 federal law, the Survivor Benefit Plan annuity "paid to a surviving spouse shall be reduced by the amount" of the VA's "dependency and indemnity compensation."

The benefit-cut law affects 919 surviving spouses in Arkansas, according to the most recent Defense Department data. States with the largest numbers include California, 6,048; Florida, 6,127; and Texas, 7,690.

Don Berry of Sherwood, a spokesman for the Arkansas Veterans Coalition, and other veterans group spokesmen say too many widows they talk to don't know the law's impact, or even its existence, until their spouses die.

A spokesman for the Defense Department, which sells the Survivor Benefit Plan annuity, says information about the VA payment's impact is provided to service families in meetings and in printed materials.

Even so, a former Veterans Affairs benefits counselor says he sees many new widows blindsided by it.

"You start out speaking to a lady who's in horrible shape because she's just lost her husband," said John Tilford, a retired Army Reserve colonel. He has counseled veterans and survivors for the VA, for county government and as a volunteer in the Bloomington, Ind., area.

"When you fully describe it, the widows raise their eyes and look at you like, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Tilford said. "If the widows aren't already crying, they start. They suddenly realize they will be punished for the remainder of their lives because their spouse gave his life for their country. It does not make sense."

Defense Department spokesman and Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason wrote in an email that the offset law ensures the service-member's survivor "receives the higher of the two annuities" and allows the VA benefit to retain a tax-exempt status. Also, the government refunds all or part of the service members' annuity premiums, Gleason wrote. Veterans groups point out that refund doesn't include interest on premiums paid, often for decades.

Kathy Prout of Coronado, Calif., didn't start lobbying to repeal the "Widow's Tax" until several years after her husband, Navy Rear Adm. James Prout III, died in a 1995 military air crash. The couple had three children.

Her Survivor Benefit Plan annuity was supposed to pay about $2,500 per month, she said. The benefit-reduction law cut it to about $1,750.

In about 2013, frustrated by the difficulty in contacting others also affected, Prout started a Facebook group, which now has more than 1,640 followers.

As of late March, 241 of 435 House members had co-sponsored the House Resolution 846, the "Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act." All four representatives from Arkansas have signed on.

In the Senate, 38 of 100 U.S. senators had signed to co-sponsor the similar Senate Bill 339, the "Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act of 2017." Arkansas' Republican U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton are among them.

"The widows and children of our service members have sacrificed in service to our country, and they deserve the very best," Sen. Tom Cotton said through a spokesman. "We should be honoring them, not taxing their benefits."

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