Veterans demand end to widow's tax injustice
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The Senate recently passed S. 1790, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, by a vote of 86-8. The bill, which must still be conferenced with the House of Representatives, provides $750 billion in total defense spending and a 3.1 percent military pay raise, and reforms the Military Housing Privatization Initiative for military families, among many other enhancements, to include the adoption of 93 bipartisan amendments.

Sadly missing, however, was an amendment offered by Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-Maine) to end the “widow’s tax,” which continues to financially penalize some 65,000 military survivors from simultaneously receiving two benefits they paid for and deserve.

With 75 bipartisan Senate co-sponsors, passage of S. 622, the Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act of 2019, should have been a guarantee. Yet, its 10-year, $5.7 billion price tag continues to prevent Congress from passing this important bill, which would ensure the survivors of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation have the ability to live a modest quality of life. Instead, the Senate allowed those who have already sacrificed so much to continue to sacrifice more.

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However, unlike the Senate, the House of Representatives has overwhelmingly supported ending the Widows Tax. As of the beginning of July, 365 representatives have cosponsored H.R. 553, the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act, which surpasses the 290-cosponsor threshold that mandates a standalone floor vote. The House is expected to pass H.R. 553 in mid-July, but it is still expected to be held up in the Senate.    

Similar to life insurance, the Defense Department’s Survivor Benefit Plan is purchased by a military retiree and is intended to provide a maximum of 55 percent of the veteran’s retirement pay to their surviving spouse. If the veteran dies from a service-connected wound, illness or injury, the Department of Veterans Affairs pays surviving spouses a modest Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefit of (currently) $1,319 per month. Yet, despite the two payments being paid for two different reasons from two different federal departments, all monthly Survivor Benefit Plan retirement payments incur a dollar-for-dollar offset by the DIC payment. This aptly named “widow’s tax” currently impacts some 65,000 surviving military spouses from receiving both payments.

Air Force veteran and VFW life member Jeremy Kitzhaber served on active duty for 22 years, where he was exposed to countless environmental, chemical and radiological hazards. At the age of 43, less than two years after his military retirement in 2012, he was diagnosed with Stage IV pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare cancer that spreads through the abdomen. In the seven years since, he has undergone two major surgeries where doctors have removed his entire omentum, as well as several organs to remove tumors throughout his peritoneal cavity. Kitzhaber has undergone a hemicolectomy, endured inner belly hot chemotherapy, completed 20 rounds of traditional chemotherapy, and 35 rounds of immunotherapy. Despite all of that, the cancer has returned. 

Jeremy points out that, “If I die from the cancer, which will likely be the case, my wife would only receive about 20 percent for my retirement paycheck. But, if I were struck by lightning or hit by a car walking across the street and die, the death would not be service-connected, and my wife would receive my retirement without offset. Nevertheless, after I am gone, my wife and three kids are going to have to make very hard financial decisions, even having to consider selling our home just to make ends meet.”

Sadly, Jeremy’s circumstance is not an anomaly. This offset threatens the financial wellbeing of 65,000 families who have lost a loved one due to military service. Military spouses sacrifice their own careers, move every two to three years, and endure multiple deployments. Military spouses have dedicated their lives to serving the military community and have selflessly borne the burden of not just being husbands or wives but household caretakers all in service to their country. Without them, the fabric of our fighting force would dissolve. 

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Abraham Lincoln notably stated, “As God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Instead of caring for those who have sacrificed so much for our nation, Congress continues to balance the budget on the back of the widows and orphans, which is a disgrace.

Surviving spouses and veterans like Jeremy do not have the luxury of waiting for Congress to do its job. The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States again calls on all of its members and advocates to demand Congress end this injustice now.

B.J. Lawrence is the national commander of the more than 1.6 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and its auxiliary.