Defense bill conferees must move to repeal the 'widows tax'

Defense bill conferees must move to repeal the 'widows tax'
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As conferees begin resolving differences in the House and Senate versions of the FY 2020 defense bills, they will have some important decisions to make. Decisions involving our nation’s security and those who go into harm’s way in defense of America are heavy burdens.

One of the decisions the conferees will make concerns the so-called “widows tax.” For more than four decades, U.S. law has stipulated that survivors of deceased service members who died as a result of military operations or service-connected causes are required to forfeit part or all of an annuity — referred to as the Survivor Benefit Plan, or SBP — which their service member purchased as a life insurance-type of policy. 

These survivors sacrifice part or all of the annuity because Congress mandated an offset from a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) compensation for which survivors also are eligible, based on the service member’s cause of death.

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Both payments are “earned” benefits these survivors deserve. In fact, the SBP equates to the only insurance-type product in the country that you pay into but legally can be prohibited from collecting. Neither Congress nor the courts would ever tolerate an insurance company withholding death benefits, making this an incomprehensible injustice. It negatively impacts a majority of survivors, costing them approximately $12,000 per year.

Congressional members took huge steps earlier this year to try to correct this injustice. Standalone legislation to repeal the tax earned overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers — 372 House and 75 Senate co-sponsors. Unfortunately, although members of Congress support fixing the problem, they have failed to find an adequate way to pay for it.

This is where the conferees can shine. This is their opportunity to show leadership by correcting a wrong that has gone on for more than 40 years and has allowed our nation to turn its back on the survivors of the men and women who gave their lives to protect this country. 

One of the values found in the military culture is not just admitting to mistakes that are made but correcting any problems that may have resulted from those mistakes. The bipartisan support that House and Senate members have shown for ending the widows tax is an acknowledgement of the issue. The conferees now can show real leadership by finding the funds that will take the issue — once and for all — over the goal line.

President Harry Truman’s words are most appropriate in addressing the widows tax: “Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

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The House-Senate conference represents an opportunity for members to show the type of leadership to which Truman referred — courageous, skillful leaders who seize the opportunity to change things for the better. In this case, however, it’s changing things not just for the better but changing them because the current legislation is simply an injustice. We are a much better nation than one that turns its back on the survivors of those who died for our country.

There are approximately 67,000 military survivors who are victims of the widows tax. Two more spouses joined the rolls this month when their husbands were killed in Afghanistan. Both soldiers left behind wives and children. One wife is pregnant, and neither wife will be permitted to collect the earned benefits promised to her husband. 

We cannot continue to allow this to happen to survivors such as these women. 

Our congressional leaders would be well-served to remember the words of another remarkable president — Abraham Lincoln — when he spoke of veterans and their dependents in his second inaugural address: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle for his widow, and his orphan.” If Lincoln were alive today, he no doubt would find the widows tax appalling. 

We frequently hear phrases such as “Thank you for your service,” or “Thank you for all that you do” when civilians approach active duty personnel or veterans in a public setting. But those words ring hollow when put in the context of the widows tax. 

It’s time to “put our money where our mouth is” by supporting such statements with a repeal of the widows tax. 

Tom Jurkowsky is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and sits on the board of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is an adjunct instructor at Anne Arundel Community College in Annapolis, Md. Follow on Twitter @MilitaryOfficer.