En español | Felicia Mullaney remembers trying to help the widow of a veteran who had died at a young age of cancer.
The widow was attempting to claim a state property tax break that was designed to help veterans and their survivors, but there was a problem. To qualify, she needed proof that her husband had been totally disabled, but her husband had never applied to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a total disability rating before he died.
As a result, the widow could not get the benefit.
“We’re seeing a lot of people not aware’’ of what they need to do to claim benefits, says Mullaney, director of veteran benefits for Vietnam Veterans of America. “It’s a pretty common problem.’’
Jim Marszalek, national service director for Disabled American Veterans, is familiar with the problem. He says that even though the VA conducts classes for service members before they leave the military to acquaint them with benefits, many service members are focused on immediate concerns, not on benefits that might help them and their families in the future.
“When you get out, it’s stressful. You want to look for a job and move on,’’ he says.
Plus, Marszalek says, many benefits hinge on having a condition that the VA labels a disability, and “there’s a stigma associated with disability.’’
Such feelings, combined with the complicated rules involved in qualifying for benefit programs, often mean that survivors of veterans end up like the widow whom Mullaney was trying to help, missing out on benefits they deserve, experts say.
Some of the most important benefits that survivors should explore include:
Compensation for survivors
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is one of the most valuable benefits available to veterans’ survivors. People who meet the criteria for DIC can get tens of thousands of dollars a year in tax-free payments.
DIC payment rates are adjusted annually. In 2022, surviving spouses of veterans who have died since Jan. 1, 1993 will receive about $1,440 a month, with supplementary payments possible if the veteran was disabled or if the spouse is disabled or caring for minor children. (The VA uses a different scale for veterans who died before 1993, with DIC rates ranging from about $1,440 to $3,290, plus supplements, depending on the deceased’s pay grade.)
Dependent children may also qualify for DIC payments, and some parents of deceased veterans can get benefits if their income is low.
DIC payments are not automatic and not everyone is eligible. Survivors must apply for the benefit, and the sooner they do it, the better. If they apply more than 12 months after the service member’s death, payments are retroactive only to the date they applied, not the date the veteran died. In most cases, surviving spouses lose eligibility if they remarry.
The program is designed to compensate survivors when service members die during their service, or as a result of a service-connected disability. It also compensates survivors in cases where veterans die from a cause unrelated to their service but were rated by the VA as being totally disabled from a service-connected disability for a certain amount of time immediately before their death.
Experts cite the program as one of the reasons veterans should apply for total disability ratings as soon as they are eligible.
“If you don’t have permanent and total, try to get it,’’ says Mullaney. “Don’t wait until you think you are dying.”
Another valuable benefit available to eligible survivors is comprehensive health coverage from the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA). Under this program, the VA shares the cost of most health care services and medical supplies that it considers necessary for eligible surviving spouses and children. In most cases, eligibility for the coverage depends on the degree of a veteran’s service-connected disability.
Comprehensive health coverage is also available under the VA’s Spina Bifida Health Care Benefits Program to children of Vietnam veterans and certain Korean War veterans who have been diagnosed with spina bifida.
More limited health coverage is available in specific situations. For example, service members’ spouses and children who lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between August 1953 and the end of 1987 can get reimbursement for certain out-of-pocket health care costs because of contaminated drinking water there. The benefit applies to treatment of 15 specific illnesses and medical conditions, including several forms of cancer, infertility and miscarriage.
Another targeted health benefit applies to children with certain birth defects other than spina bifida who were born to female Vietnam veterans. The Children of Women Vietnam Veterans Health Care Benefits Program (CWVV) covers services necessary for treatment of the covered birth defect and associated medical conditions.
Education and training
Substantial financial help is available for survivors of service members interested in pursuing education or vocational training. The government, in some cases, will pay all or a large part of tuition costs for college and other educational programs.
Under the Fry program, the government pays the full cost of in-state tuition at public institutions, or up to about $26,000 a year for a private school, plus a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for books and supplies. This scholarship, paid directly to the school, was expanded to include surviving spouses in 2014.
Eligible survivors who choose the DEA program instead of the Fry scholarship can get a monthly check sent directly to them to pay educational costs. The maximum amount for full-time students currently is $1,298 per month.
The DEA and Fry programs can be used for college, vocational and business technical programs, apprenticeship programs, certification tests and tutoring.
The federal Forever GI Bill, enacted in 2017, has made it easier for survivors to transfer benefits under the GI Bill after the death of service members.
Eligibility for educational benefits can depend on a number of factors, including the date and circumstances of a veteran's death, the ages of dependent children and the widow or widower's marital status.
Surviving spouses who meet certain criteria can get a VA-guaranteed home loan to buy, build or improve a home or to refinance a mortgage.
VA loans have important advantages over other home loans. In most cases, the buyer does not have to make a down payment on the home. Home buyers using these loans also do not have to pay monthly mortgage insurance premiums.
For those who are refinancing, one option is a cash-out refinance loan, which enables homeowners to get cash from the equity in the home and use it, for example, to pay off debt, pay for education or make home improvements.
Survivors of veterans who served during wartime can apply to receive a tax-free VA Survivors Pension, a monthly payment to surviving spouses with modest incomes who have not remarried. The benefit is also available to unmarried dependent children of wartime veterans.
The maximum survivors pension rate is set annually by Congress, and eligibility is based on income and net worth (including assets such as bank accounts, investments and real estate other than your primary residence). In 2022, the top rate for surviving spouses will range from just under $9,900 a year to about $19,000, depending on whether they have children and qualify for other VA benefits. The actual payment amount is the difference between your income and your maximum pension rate.
Eligible veterans and their spouses and dependents can be buried in one of the 155 national cemeteries maintained by the VA.
Burial benefits for veterans in these cemeteries include opening and closing the grave, perpetual care, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate (PMC), at no cost to the family.
Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the veteran, perpetual care of the gravesite, and the spouse or dependents' names and dates of birth and death inscribed on the veteran's headstone, at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried in a VA national cemetery even if the veteran is not buried there.
When veterans are buried at private cemeteries, the government provides a headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a PMC. The VA also may pay for some of the burial and funeral expenses. Many states have state veteran cemeteries, which may have residency requirements.
Veterans who receive a disability rating connected to their service can qualify for a Service-Disabled Veterans Life Insurance (S-DVI) life insurance policy, which provides up to $10,000 of coverage. Veterans who are totally disabled are eligible to have their premiums waived.
Totally disabled veterans who are approved for a premium waiver can apply for up to $30,000 in additional coverage, but premiums for the supplemental coverage cannot be waived.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published Oct. 17, 2018. It has been updated with 2022 benefit information.