Military widows lose benefits for remarrying before age 55

DBut after burying my husband, an Iraq War veteran, I sat on my living room floor with a gray-haired volunteer who had traveled over 70 miles to help me apply for surviving spouse benefits. . I was 24 years old. My husband, 25, had overdosed on prescribed fentanyl and quickly became addicted after losing his left leg to an IED.

The man explained to me as I signed document after document that I would only be eligible for aid as long as I remained single. Deeply chagrined, I could barely take in what he was saying.

I didn’t want to remarry. What I wanted was for my husband, who I met when I was 13 in English class in our hometown of Foley, Alabama, to come back to me as he was before he went. at war.

As I signed the papers, I remembered being in that same room eight months before. My husband, Jimmy Cleveland (Cleve) Kinsey II, had just medically retired from the Marine Corps. This time, I was with another stranger – a young realtor holding a set of keys and a Home Depot gift card – signing the contract for our very first house.

The author with her late husband Jimmy Cleveland (Cleve) Kinsey II, in Washington, DC, in November 2007.

Courtesy of Karie Fugett

The United States Army makes a solemn vow to its soldiers: if you die, your surviving family members will be well taken care of. The benefits that eligible military widows receive include a stipend each month that changes with inflation, health insurance, money for education, and privileges on base, including the right to shop at the commissary. These benefits were earned, some of them paid for, by servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice. But what the government often fails to tell the military is that if their surviving family member remarries or “presents to the public” as someone’s spouse before they turn 55, they lose everything.

Veterans Benefits (VA) are notorious among widows for being difficult to navigate, and the part of the rule that affects domestic partnerships has caused much confusion and distress. Unsure of their rights, many have chosen to hide, refraining from posting anything on social media that suggests they are in a long-term relationship. The vagueness has spawned rumours, including a common one about factors signaling widows are living with new partners. To my knowledge, there is no evidence of this happening, but widows have been reported by ex-boyfriends and anonymous people leading to VA investigations. In some cases, benefits have been withdrawn.

Read more: ‘Was it all worth it?’ Mourning one of the last American soldiers killed in Afghanistan

According to the non-profit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), 450,000 survivors receive dependency and compensation benefits, and 75,000 of them are under the age of 55. The average age of a military widow is 25. This means that many widows will have to wait 30 years to remarry if they want to keep their benefits.

“We support our troops” is nothing more than an empty platitude if we are unwilling to follow through on our promise to care for their families when they die. “It’s a penalty for moving on with your life, and it’s terrible,” said Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a former Marine. “These are terribly anachronistic restrictions, and I think they show a lack of respect for survivors.”

Read more: “I don’t have seven arms to clasp them all.” A year after their father died in Afghanistan, a mother and her children struggle to move on

There is a possibility to fix it. On September 13, Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced the Love Lives On Act, which would allow surviving military spouses to keep their benefits even if they decide to remarry. It is not the first bill of its kind, although it is considered the most comprehensive and is fully endorsed by TAPS. The first Love Lives On Act, introduced on April 26, 2016, was finally put on the consensus calendar and forgotten. Most recently, on February 25, Rep. Marie Newman of Illinois introduced the All Veterans Family Support Act. Its goal is to eliminate the language that widows lose their benefits for living with another person and openly presenting themselves as that person’s spouse. It also seeks to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex marriages. The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs in March, but has not moved since.

Remarriage does not erase the sacrifice made by our loved ones. It does not erase the trauma. The life my husband and I had planned together was shattered, first by the addiction resulting from the treatment of his war wounds, then by his death. I still mourn him. I still have nightmares about his last months. As I write this, I look at the library in my office where I keep the folded flag I received at his funeral. But I also tried to look not only to the past but to the future.

The author with his partner and daughter in Dothan, Alabama, in February 2022. (Courtesy Karie Fugett)

The author with his partner and daughter in Dothan, Alabama, in February 2022.

Courtesy of Karie Fugett

It’s been 12 years since this volunteer came to my door. I am 36 years old and I have been with the same man for seven years. We live in her mother’s childhood home and have a beautiful daughter together. I live in fear that the wrong person will find out, of losing my benefits because I fell in love again and chose to build a life with my partner.

Marriage was never an option for my boyfriend and I, so it’s not something we think about much. But after our daughter was born, her mother asked if we could at least have a commitment ceremony in her garden. “Let’s celebrate your beautiful family,” she said. Holding back my tears, I had to refuse. It was too risky.

Even writing this seems risky. I’m afraid someone in the VA will read this and put me under investigation. But that’s how important this question is to me. I would like the freedom to remarry without being punished, not only for me but for the tens of thousands of military widows like me who have sacrificed so much. Many are afraid to talk about it because they are afraid of losing everything, but if we remain silent, it will be that much more difficult to see the change.

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