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story.lead_photo.caption Elly Gibbons puts flowers and a flag on the grave of her husband, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John Gibbons, at Fort Smith National Cemetery in March. Gibbons and other surviving spouses of veterans are trying to get Congress to repeal a law that blocks some annuity payments. Gibbons says she watches Congress year after year “totally ignore this issue.” - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Elly Gibbons of Fort Smith, widow of a National Guard chief master sergeant and Vietnam veteran, began just a few years ago phoning and visiting her Arkansas congressional representatives.

Kathy Prout of Coronado, Calif., a Navy rear admiral's widow, has lobbied U.S. Senate and House members nationwide since 2004. Earlier this year, she got a face-to-face with President Donald Trump.

Their mission, shared by many veterans groups, is to persuade Congress to repeal a federal law that withholds a military-sponsored survivors' annuity payment from thousands of military widows and widowers.

The annuity -- which averages about $11,100 per year -- is a survivors' benefit that the widows' dead soldier, sailor and airmen spouses paid for with their lives and their money, the widows say.

A majority of congressional members, including all six currently representing Arkansas, has expressed support for efforts to restore the payments.

But at least 20 years of lobbying and 19 bills before Congress have failed to strike down the law, 10 U.S. Code 1451 (c)(2).

Now, military widows and widowers like Gibbons and Prout have watched another U.S. Congress adjourn while the law, popularly known as the "widow's tax," still stands.

"We are really disappointed," said Prout, founder of a Facebook group that includes 1,800 military surviving spouses. Now her group will have to start over, lining up sponsors and co-sponsors in the new Congress that convenes Thursday.

Gibbons says she cringes to hear congressional members and presidents speak glowingly of their support for military members and families.

She's heard Arkansas congressmen speak and write about "long-standing dedication to the warfighter" to veterans and to "the families who have made serving possible."

Then, Gibbons says, she watches Congress year after year "totally ignore this issue" of the payment penalty for military widows and widowers.

Though opponents call it the "widow's tax," 10 U.S. Code 1451 (c)(2) isn't really a tax.

It blocks more than 65,000 surviving spouses, including more than 900 in Arkansas, from receiving payments from a Department of Defense's annuity program called the Survivors Benefit Plan (SBP).

The law affects only spouses of dead veterans, not children and other survivors. About 99 percent of those affected are women. Most are older than 62.

And most, like Gibbons, had husbands who signed up at retirement for the Survivor Benefit Plan to help the wives who might outlive them. They made monthly payments. Then the military retirees, like John Gibbons, later died of service-related illnesses.

Information about how the ‘Widow’s Tax’ works
Information about how the ‘Widow’s Tax’ works

Fewer, like Prout, had husbands who died on active duty and automatically qualified their survivors for the SBP plan.

The catch is this: When military members die from service-related, disabling illnesses, or on active duty, their survivors also qualify for a tax-free benefit from the Veterans Administration.

For most recipients, that was a flat $1,283 per month for most of 2018, no matter the military member's rank or length of service. The payment is called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC).

The "widow's tax" law prohibits surviving spouses from collecting Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and also collect Survivor's Benefit Plan payments.

It mandates subtracting the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation payment from any Survivor's Benefit Plan benefit. That's why the law is also often called the "SBP-DIC Offset."

For about two-thirds of widows affected, subtracting the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation payment erases the entire survivors annuity that their dead military spouses purchased for them. The military refunds what retirees paid toward the benefit but with no interest.

Receiving both benefits in full would ease the financial struggle that the widows face, they say.

An October report by the Congressional Research Service outlined arguments for and against the "widow's tax" law.

Those in favor say federal laws have long prohibited a person from receiving two benefits from the government for the same period of service.

"Because the federal government pays the full DIC cost and subsidizes the SBP coverage," it would be "inherently unfair to the taxpayer" for survivors to receive both payments, said the Oct. 1 report titled "Military Survivor Benefit Plan: Background and Issues for Congress."

Those who favor repeal say the benefits are two different types of compensation.

The report quotes the Gold Star Wives of America group's argument that the Survivors Benefit Plan is a "purchased annuities benefit, or type of insurance benefit." The Dependency and Indemnity Compensation is an "indemnity payment for death."

"The surviving spouses should be entitled to concurrent receipt of both," the Gold Star group said.

Prout's Facebook group, Military Widows: SBP-DIC Offset, also points out that thousands of military service-disabled retirees already receive two similar payments in full.

A federal program launched in 2004 allows military members to receive their retirement pay at the same time they get Veterans Administration disability pay, according to the Department of Defense website.

Articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in April of this year featured the Facebook group's efforts to persuade every congressional representative -- 435 in the U.S. House, 100 in the Senate -- to sign up and support repealing the "widow's tax."

Congressional lobbyists then said the practical problem was finding the will and the money to pay for it.

Cost estimates vary. The Congressional Budget Office in 2009 said repeal of the tax would cost the federal government about $7 billion spread from 2010-19.

Research by the Military Widows Facebook group, working with federal budget staffers, says the cost now is lower, about $5.3 billion over 10 years.

That's because Congress made permanent in 2018 a payment to widows and widowers designed to ease the SBP-DIC Offset's bite, a Special Survivor Indemnity allowance of $310 monthly.

Some 272 U.S. House members eventually sponsored or co-sponsored Congress' efforts to repeal the "widow's tax." House Resolution 846, titled the "Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act," counted among its supporters Arkansas' four House members -- Republicans Rick Crawford, French Hill, Bruce Westerman and Steve Womack.

But the bill stalled after being introduced Feb. 3, 2017, and never was taken to a vote, according to the record-keeping website congress.gov.

Fifty-two U.S. senators backed a companion bill, S339, called the "Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act of 2017." They included Arkansas Senate Republicans John Boozman and Tom Cotton. That bill was introduced Feb. 7, 2017, and also stalled.

Gibbons, like many other survivors and veterans, views the "widow's tax" law as unjust and insulting.

Military men and women who died in action or in retirement because of their military service "laid down their lives for their country," Gibbons said.

"This Christmas, 65,000 widows and their families faced an empty chair, for some of us for the first time, others after decades. However, the void will always remain."

SundayMonday on 12/30/2018

Print Headline: Military widows, including those in Arkansas, still fighting to get annuity; with new Congress, work starts anew

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Comments

  • Knuckleball1
    December 30, 2018 at 8:04 a.m.

    The folks in DC don't care about the Veterans and the widows and family members of the Ones that gave the Ultimate Sacrifice. Oh, they talk a good game but when it comes to doing something, they say that nothing can be done, there is not enough money. If they cared then articles like this would not have to be written.

    …………………………………………

    It is a shame that the number of Homeless Vets that are living on the street and yet the Trumpster wants to spend 5 Billion plus on a wall that will not work.

  • BoudinMan
    December 30, 2018 at 9:10 a.m.

    But Knucle, trump gave the military a 10% pay raise. He loves the military. He lies straight to their face, but he loves them.

  • GeneralMac
    December 30, 2018 at 12:15 p.m.

    "but at least 20 years of lobbying "

    20 years back covers the FULL (2) terms of Barack HUSSEIN Obama.

    Surprised he didn't urge congress by saying" it's the right thing to do"......then clench his arrogant mouth so tight he made a DELIBERATE monkey face at them.

  • susangeer1959hotmailcom
    December 30, 2018 at 5:16 p.m.

    The SBP-DIC offset robs those who make the ultimate sacrifice. Military retirement is EARNED, yet being forfeited when death is service connected. Why would a dead soldier be robbed of their EARNED retirement?

    The living disabled receive both disability and retirement.

    What makes the dead less worthy of theirs?

    Why is my deceased deemed less worthy of the retirement he earned the same way as those still living?

    Why is it ok to pilfer the pockets of dead soldiers?

    Why aren’t the members of Congress that are military retirees..and especially those with a disability rating that allow them to collect both...not standing up in outrage?

    Why are THEY stepping over the bodies of their fellow soldiers?

    Why does Congress consider the cost “too great” when those serving this country, defending this country, and dying for this country never consider THAT cost too great when they raise their hand?

    Why?

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    December 30, 2018 at 10:03 p.m.

    Despicable...
    USA
    beyond doubt
    "THE GREAT WHORE"

  • esmithcapitolcrusadercom
    January 1, 2019 at 8:38 p.m.

    Powerful House Budget Committee vote reflects personal prejudices?

    My sincere appreciation to members of the Budget Committee who voted FOR Mr. Yarmuth’s amendment to repeal the SBP-DIC offset: Rep. Jack Bergman, R-1st-MI, (LtGen.USMC, Ret.) Rep. Bill Johnson, R-6th-OH, (LtCol, USAF, Ret.) and Rep. Mat Gaetz, R-1st-FL. They appeared to ignore Chr. Womack’s guidance to vote against. These three Members had the personal integrity to vote FOR a bi-partisan amendment repealing the SBP-DIC offset.

    I am a beneficiary of the Survivor Annuity that my husband EARNED and responsibly purchased at retirement. The Government has not honored their commitment to him as the payor of the annuity. Instead, the DoD realizes a monetary profit on his misfortune of disability and death. Unlike Chr. Womack, my husband did not LIVE to be paid the military retirement he EARNED.

    I was heartbroken to watch Chr. Womack’s vote against the Survivor Benefit amendment. If Col. Womack’s value to the taxpayers is $7500 mo. retired pay, how can Col. Womack not work to provide funding for $607 per mo. EARNED by those who died to be paid to their surviving spouses. How does Col. Womack personally view a funding priority for the “Ultimate Sacrifice”...or for the family who paid the “Highest Price?”

    Budget Committee Members, Chr. Womack, Rep. Tom Cole, R-4th-OK and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-25th-FL are also members of the House Appropriations Committee, Defense Subcommittee. Those three Congressmen were uniquely positioned in the 115th Congress to seek funding from Appropriations in order to include the Survivor Concurrent Receipt in the Budget Resolution. Even an incremental addition of $25. mo. would have acknowledged their commitment to take a small step forward on behalf of servicemembers who died.

  • girlscowt1aolcom
    January 2, 2019 at 9:57 a.m.

    This should not even be about politics!
    Our spouses made a committment to this Nation to serve with honor, and they did.
    We understand well, most of us after a full career of erratic legislation over military matters, that what Senators and Congressmen "commit" to do and what actually happens often have no bearing on each other. Sadly, because their future in the political arena cannot shoulder the risk of making a clear call and following through with it. Furthermore, my husband served this entire Nation. Not just the state he recruited from, or the 8 states we were stationed in. Yet, if I contact a legislator from a state or district that I am not a constituent of to educate them on the Offset, it is highly unlikely I would be put on their radar.
    I am not sure if the problem is that we are 65,000+ widows/widowers who just do not matter in the big sceme of the populace, or that we are 65,000+ individual problems that those in office cannot comprehend, but the answer is too simple for our government to handle: fulfill your committment to these Veterans and their survivors. I walked beside him every day of his 30 year career. We are NOT gold diggers seeking a handout. Many, who are quite elderly, are not tech savvy or connected on social media. It does not just feel as though we have lost the support of the military we were part of for so long, we have actually been denied a benefit we were offered at retirement and paid for to ensure annuity income. For me, it is over $1,000 each month of annuity insurance. We have no formal representation or organization to fight to eliminate the SBP-DIC Offset. We do not have the numbers to rally a march. We are your neighbors, in that car beside you on the road or in line at the grocery. For twenty years a diligent group has fought to right the wrong. Some others are just trying to get by and rebuild their lives throught their grief. We will continue, as long as it takes, because it matters -for us, and future survivors.

  • Nadolady
    January 2, 2019 at 6:31 p.m.

    This issue is a military compensation issue, not a widow's issue. It is not a tax at all but a denial of concurrent receipt of 2 very different survivor benefits. One is a purchased insurance annuity and the is paid to indemnify or hold the government harmless for causing the death. What does one have to do with the other? Senator Nelson, the sponsor of the Senate bill S.339, was the insurance commissioner for the state of FL. He says that SBP is the only insurance one purchases and then is legally prohibited from collecting. One percent of the population serve in the military to benefit and protect the freedoms we all enjoy. That Mr. Womack, former chairman of the House Budget Committee, was a co-sponsor of the House bill HR 846 to eliminate this offset, would not only vote "no" on the amendment introduced by Congressman Yarmuth, KY, a Democrat, but that he would also recommend to the entire committee that they vote no as well. And to add icing to the cake, he called this issue a DISTRACTION. So those who paid the ultimate sacrifice are now a DISTRACTION? Yet Mr. Womack supposedly supports the military and veterans. Yet Mr. Womack, a retired Colonel, who benefits from several large government checks, could not look to find even a few dollars to pay the surviving spouse beneficiaries of those who gave all what they worked to earn and paid for with income and blood. Why is Mr. Womack's service more important or valuable than the service of his brother's in arms who did not come home or who had the misfortune of dying of their wounds or military service caused disabilities? This is a non-partisan issue and all that is needed on average is $607 a month for 65,000 impacted military surviving spouses to fix this. The government happily collects the premiums, and collects the interest on these premiums but when it comes to paying the benefit after the death, all of a sudden there is no money. Maybe Mr. Womack and those on the Budget committee who voted no should re-examine their priorities and have an attitude adjustment as well as a direction change in their moral compass. From an active duty Navy surviving spouse whose husband served for 29 years.

  • groundhog71gmailcom
    January 5, 2019 at 9:53 a.m.

    It's time to get some action on this legislative issue that only affects military surviving spouses. We must be our own advocates and ask all of our U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators for the elimination of the SBP-DIC offset. We must ask, in order to receive. Call, write, send e-mails, schedule meetings in the local and D.C. offices.

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