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Military Spouses Continue Fight To End 'Widow's Tax'

A volunteer places flowers at the base of tombstones during an event at Arlington National Cemetery in in Arlington, Va., ahead of Memorial Day. (Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
A volunteer places flowers at the base of tombstones during an event at Arlington National Cemetery in in Arlington, Va., ahead of Memorial Day. (Tom Brenner/Getty Images)

Spouses of fallen U.S. service members are facing financial burdens that aren’t likely to go away unless Congress takes action on what’s known as the “widow’s tax.”

It’s an offset that impacts the way survivor benefits are paid out from the federal government after a service member dies. When a widow qualifies for multiple benefit programs, they can receive money from one — but for every dollar they get from that program, a dollar is taken away from the money they receive from the other.

Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama blasted his colleagues on the Senate floor last week for not making progress on a legislative fix despite wide bipartisan support.

“It is no wonder that the American people think Congress and Washington in general is just completely broken,” Jones said. “If we can’t fight for military widows and spouses who are having their survivor benefits shortchanged, then who are we going to fight for?”

Critics of the so-called widow’s tax say it creates not only a financial burden, but also significant emotional strain. Sue Story of Roseville, California, is one of 65,000 people across the country impacted by the offset, and tells Here & Now she wants it gone.

Her husband, Dennis Story, died three years ago. He served more than two decades in the Air Force, including time overseas during the Vietnam War.

“He absolutely loved the fact that he served his country,” Story says.

Story, 65, says her husband retired when he was in his early 40s, and that he paid $40,000 into the Department of Defense’s Survivor Benefit Plan, one of two benefit programs for military widows. The other is the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a standard benefit spouses become eligible for when the government determines a death was service-related.

Story says she was expecting to get paid out of both funds — about $1,300 a month from the Survivor Benefit Plan, and $1,100 a month from the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation — which would have given her plenty to survive on. But she says she is only getting the $1,300 a month from the Survivor Benefit Plan.

She says she remembers a meeting she and her husband had at their local veterans service organization. Dennis knew he was dying, but took solace in the fact his wife would receive money from both benefit programs. Then the couple learned that wouldn’t be the case.

“My husband cried. I only saw him cry twice, and that was the first time,” Story says. “That’s probably the hardest part because we had just bought a house and we had planned on me receiving both [the Survivor Benefit Plan] and the [Dependency and Indemnity Compensation], which would have made it enough so that I could survive for till I died.”

The primary issue driving the difficulty of doing away with the widow’s tax is the federal budget. Doing so would cost the government $5.7 billion over 10 years.

Story says she isn’t sure what she will do if the offset remains in place, but that she is hopeful Congress can intervene.

“Anywhere in civilian life if you pay for a life insurance policy, it’s not crossed off the book because another life insurance policy is out there,” Story says. “It really affects me a lot. I’m supporting two disabled adults in my home — family members. I’m trying to figure out how to do it. I mean, I’m not young — I can’t go back to work.”

There are two bills under consideration that take up the issue: the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act and the Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act of 2019, in the House and Senate, respectively.

“I believe with all my heart that if [either] bill gets put in front of President Trump, he will sign [it]. This makes no sense that this is being done to us,” Story says.

Ashley Locke produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt, and adapted it for the web with Jack Mitchell.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.