As Americans, we all appreciate and support our troops and their families. Right? Of course we do.
We fly the flag, hold parades in their honor, and praise these brave Americans – and their spouses and children – for their sacrifices on our behalf. We commit to serve them in return by promising quality health care, educational support and other earned benefits.
So that’s why I was so shocked to learn recently that something completely reprehensible is happening to some of our military widows – and that is that they are being denied the survivor benefits they paid for and earned.
This injustice is happening to as many as 65,000 surviving spouses – including more than 2,000 Alabamians – of military service members who were killed in action or died as the result of a service-related cause.
Essentially, the problem is this: the federal government is trying to save a few bucks by ripping off military widows whose families paid extra to opt in to an additional life insurance plan.
All military spouses whose loved ones die from service-related causes are able to collect full survivor benefits. Military families can also choose to pay extra into an additional insurance plan offered by the Defense Department – just like the kind of policy you or I would buy to ensure our loved ones were taken care of after we’re gone.
The problem is that, right now, the government doesn’t let spouses collect their full benefits from both programs. Instead, they subtract the annuity from the basic survivor benefits these folks are entitled to. These grieving families – who paid out of pocket for an extra benefit – are penalized. This is the so-called “Widow’s Tax.”
This doesn’t just apply to active-duty families, either. This applies to anyone who has a service-related death. In Alabama alone, there are more than 60,000 Department of Defense retirees whose families could be impacted by the widow’s tax if the retiree were to pass from a service-related reason.
I understand we’ve got to be careful stewards of taxpayer dollars, but give me a break. This is a benefit these families paid for. If they’re not getting the money, it begs the question: who is?
No surviving spouse should be faced with this kind of unexpected and completely unfair cut to the benefits they thought they could count on. No surviving spouse should have to fight for what their families are owed – in the wake of a family tragedy, no less. No surviving spouses should have to mount a massive lobbying effort in the capital of this great country to get folks to understand that this is wrong and we need to fix it. Instead, they should be focusing on beginning to heal and find strength in their families. They should be given the space and time to grieve.
It is absolutely shameful that our federal government would treat our military families this way. And that’s why I’ve introduced a bipartisan bill called the Military Widows Tax Elimination Act of 2019. It has almost 40 cosponsors in the Senate – and that number is growing by the day.
This legislation been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, but it has yet to pass – in large part because of concerns about its cost. While I certainly understand that, we’re talking about something these families have paid for on their own account. These folks are being robbed of the benefits that they thought they could count on.
I’m grateful that our bill has support from the Gold Star Wives of America, VFW, the Military Officers Association of America, the National Military Family Association, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and more than 30 other military families and veterans associations that are members of the The Survivors Coalition. In fact, several Gold Star Wives visited me in the Senate this past week to show their support for this bill in person.
We have a fundamental responsibility to honor our promises to the families of the brave people who give up their lives for our country. I’m hopeful that we can right this wrong and finally pass the Military Widows Tax Elimination Act. It’s just the right thing to do.
Doug Jones is an American attorney, former prosecutor and politician serving as the junior United States Senator from Alabama since 2018.