Congress, DOD differ on scope of restored widow benefits

By Tom Philpott

The current controversy is over a provision in the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003, which was signed into law Dec. 16.
For years, widows who remarried lost their DIC entitlement. But Section 101 of the new benefit package (Public Law 108-183) allows veterans’ surviving spouses who remarry at 57 or older to retain DIC.
Indeed, widows who earlier remarried at 57 or older, and lost DIC, have until Dec. 16 to reapply (Use VA Form 21-686c.)
More than 12,000 widows are said to qualify but officials estimate fewer than 15 percent will know to apply, even after an aggressive public information campaign. An estimated 350 DIC-eligible widows a year remarry after age 56, and therefore stand to gain from the bill.
The controversy for widows of military retirees arises in paragraph B of Section 101. It says individuals made eligible for DIC under the provision, by reason of their “status as the surviving spouse of a veteran,” should see no reduction in other federal benefits as a result of this provision.
Brown, chairman of the House veterans’ benefits subcommittee, said in a phone interview that the paragraph was added specifically to avoid for this group of widows a reduction in SBP benefit once DIC is restored.
“We put a special paragraph in there to, basically, get (the Defense Department) to do that,” Brown said. “This was to get the camel’s nose under the tent, sort of like we did with concurrent receipt‚” for disabled retirees.
Peter Dickinson, communications director for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, agreed that eliminating the offset in SBP for DIC-eligible widows who remarry after age 56 was the committee’s intent.
“We wanted to make sure that this group did not see this new benefit come in, and then lose another benefit,” he said.
Taking its cue from the committee, the National Association of the Uniformed Services explained to its members in a Dec. 5 newsletter that the provision “in essence, eliminates the requirement for DIC to offset SBP annuities as required by current law.”
But a Pentagon source said Defense pay officials and lawyers have reviewed the provision and find no impact on SBP. If the intent was to end the SBP offset as DIC is restored, the bill would have referred specifically to the surviving spouse of “a military retiree‚” not of “a veteran.”