The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers a number of programs for veterans returning home with disabilities and other hardships—and that care extends to their families as well. Recognizing the need to help those widowed when service members die in the line of duty, the VA also offers assistance to surviving spouses.
The loss of a spouse is one of the most tragic life events an individual can face and it is especially brutal when relatively young spouses die in military settings. Grieving widows may be overwhelmed emotionally and suddenly the daily tasks associated with work and family life can be too difficult to tackle. Surviving spouse benefits are aimed at alleviating some of these burdens, with assistance provided by the VA in recognition of the service paid to the country. Additional benefits are paid for dependents and we will take a look at the various benefits available to surviving spouses and how they can be claimed.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation
DIC Benefits are paid to surviving spouses by the VA when the service member died while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty for training. These benefits are also paid when a veteran died from a service-connected injury or disease. If the death was caused by a non-service-connected injury or disease, but the veteran was receiving service-connected disability benefits prior to death, the DIC benefits may be paid to the spouse as well (certain timelines and stipulations apply in these scenarios). More than 300,000 surviving spouses currently receive this compensation, which starts at a basic rate of $1257.95 per month and increases $311.64 for each child.
Surviving Spouse Pensions
The VA also provides for surviving spouses in low-income levels and/or those who need long-term care. In order to be eligible for these pensions, the veteran of the spouse must have served at least 90 days of active duty and must not have been discharged dishonorably from service. For surviving spouses who have not remarried, the VA offers this survivors pension at a maximum annual rate of $8830 (with no dependents) or $11,557 with one dependent (and an additional $2,250 per child). For those who need long-term care, Aid & Attendance is another pension available, to assist with those who need household help and assistance with daily activities such as bathing or getting dressed. This benefit can go toward in-home care or the costs of a special facility, and the maximum benefit is $13,686 per year.
Pensions and Dependents
In cases where a veteran dies with no surviving spouse but does have surviving dependents, children may be eligible to receive a VA pension. The requirements for eligibility include being under 18 or enrolled in college and under the age of 23, and they must also be unmarried. For those in college, the school must be a VA-approved school in order for the child to receive the pension. In cases where a surviving child is incapable of supporting himself into adulthood due to some long-term disability, the pension may continue to pay after age 23 provided it started before age 18.
A Note on Disability Claims
In some cases, the veteran may die before a disability claim was decided by the VA. If the claim is later approved, the widow may be entitled to the accrued disability benefits that are due to the deceased service member. Though the surviving spouse will not continue to receive disability benefits, this back payment can be paid if applied for in VA application form 21-354.
Length of Service
This is an important area to define as far as eligibility requirements for survivor’s pensions. The general guidelines for eligibility as far as service time is broken into two categories:
- If the veteran served on or prior to September 7, 1980, they must have served at least 90 days.
- For those who went on active duty after September 7, 1980, they must have served for at least 24 months and at least one day during wartime.
To determine whether a veteran served during wartime, you need to consult the VA’s specific wartime periods which can be found on the VA website.
How Does the VA Define Marriage? Can Same-Sex Surviving Spouses Receive Benefits?
The definition of marriage as it applies to survivor benefits is also outlined by the VA and must be taken into account with any applications for pensions or other benefits. The VA has stated on its website that it is “dedicated to serving all eligible Servicemembers, Veterans and their families and providing them with the benefits they have earned. We encourage all veterans in same-sex marriages who believe they are entitled to benefits (including those whose claims were previously denied on a ground related to their marriage) to promptly apply for benefits.” (https://www.va.gov/opa/marriage/)
The VA is also changing its forms to remove references to “husband” and “wife” and instead using “spouse” only.
How to Get Started…and How to Get Support
The VA website includes all of the forms and instruction needed for surviving spouses to apply for pensions. However, the simple act of filling out forms can still be overwhelming for a grieving individual, and it is recommended that you seek the help and support of veteran service organizations who provide aid to military families. There are a number of groups specific to widows, including such organizations as the American Widow Project and Gold Star Wives of America. By connecting with these types of organizations, surviving spouses may be able to get support and guidance from those who have already navigated the pensions system, as well as much needed emotional support, too.