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8 Important Benefits Veteran Survivors Should Know

From health care to education, help is available to military families

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Widowed spouses and other survivors of military veterans typically become acquainted with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) during one of the most challenging periods in their lives, following the loss of a veteran.​

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 become acquainted with benefits, many service members are focused on immediate concerns, not on benefits that might help them and their families in the future.​

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“When you get out, it’s stressful. You want to look for a job and move on,’’ he says.

For example, a 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 VA for a total disability rating before he died.

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 missing out on benefits they deserve.

For key insights on survivor benefits, we spoke with Kevin Friel, deputy director of pension and fiduciary service at the VA and Garrett Schmidt, a management and program analyst at the department.

Health and education benefits for military families​​

  • Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs and other health assistance programs can provide care to military families.​
  • Scholarships, grants and GI Bill transfer make higher education and vocational training more accessible.​

Compensation for survivors, spouses and dependents​​

  • Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.​
  • Accrued benefits.​
  • Survivors pension.​
  • Burial benefits.​
  • Home loan benefits.​​ 

1. Health care

A 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 applies to survivors of veterans who were totally disabled or who died from a VA rated 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 the condition.​

Other limited health coverage is available to survivors from specific stations or service eras. For example, service members, spouses and children who lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between August 1953 and 1987 can be reimbursed 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 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.​

2. 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.​

Two key programs that eligible surviving spouses and children should explore are the Fry Scholarship and Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance (DEA).​

Under the Fry program, the government pays the full cost of in-state tuition at public institutions, up to about $27,120 a year for a private school, plus a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for books and supplies. This scholarship is for eligible children of veterans up to 33 years and widowed spouses. ​

Eligible survivors who choose the DEA program can get a monthly check sent directly to them to pay educational costs for 36 months. ​

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.

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3. VA home loans

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. ​

4. VA survivors pension

​​Surviving spouses of veterans who served during a time of war with a modest income who have not remarried may apply to receive a monthly tax-free VA Survivors Pension payment. The benefit is also available to unmarried dependent children of wartime veterans until age 18, or age 23 while attending a VA-approved school.​

The maximum annual survivors pension rate (MAPR) 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 2023, the top rate for surviving spouses will range from around $10,750 a year to about $20,500, 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.​

5. DIC benefits for surviving spouses and dependents

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 2023, surviving spouses of veterans who have died since Jan. 1, 1993 will receive about $1,560 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 $1,560 to $3,580, plus supplements, depending on the deceased’s pay grade.​

Dependent children may also qualify for DIC payments, and some parents of deceased veterans can receive benefits if their income is low.​

The sooner survivors apply for the benefit, 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 unless they are over age 55.​

The program is designed to compensate survivors when service members die while in the service or because of a service-connected disability. It also compensates survivors of veterans who died 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.​

After a surviving spouse or child submits the application form 21P-534EZ, the VA will also determine eligibility for survivor’s pension and accrued benefits. ​

If the VA notices that a veteran, for instance, had developed hypertension, which is now considered a service-connected condition due to the PACT Act, they will assess whether the veteran qualifies for DIC compensation.​ ​

“The surviving spouse in their moment of grieving might only say, ‘Well, I’m only entitled to the survivor pension because I’m in this nursing home. I don’t think my husband’s or my wife’s death was service connected,” said Schmidt. “If we see something like hypertension on a death certificate, which is one of the new PACT Act, herbicide presumptives [a condition presumed to have stemmed from military service] and we see on the DD 214 this veteran had foreign service, maybe the veteran even served in Laos, we now have a slam-dunk connection, where we can pay the surviving spouse DIC.”​

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6. Burial benefits

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 grave site and the spouse’s 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 up to $2,000. ​

The department recently announced that it will also cover burial transportation fees; typically, this would be the fee incurred from moving the veteran from a funeral home to their final resting place. A receipt is required so the VA can determine how much to reimburse.

For non-service-connected deaths, burial benefits must be filed within two years after the veteran’s burial. Meanwhile, service-connected burials, when the cause of death is related to military service, have no time limits to file a service-connected burial, transportation, or plot and interment allowance.

7. Accrued benefits​

Accrued benefit payments can be made when a veteran had a claim that wasn’t finalized at the time of their death. When an application is submitted to the VA for DIC benefits, the VA will check if there were benefits that the veteran should have received, which would then be paid to their spouse.

“Sometimes survivors aren’t aware that the veteran had a claim, so we’re going to look at that and make a determination if there’s any eligibility or potential for accrued,” says Friel.  “If there is, we’ll process it and make that payment without the survivor having to do more.”​​The payment for a claim submitted by a deceased spouse, child or parent dependent may also be eligible for an accrued benefit payment. ​

8. Life insurance

The Service-Disabled Veterans Life Insurance (S-DVI) policy stopped taking new applications after 2022. But those who already have S-DVI may keep it. ​

In 2023, the agency introduced VALife, which provides up to $40,000 in life insurance coverage for any veteran 80 or younger. No medical underwriting is required, and veterans with any disability rating will be accepted. For veterans 81 or older, there are some additional requirements.​

S-DVI coverage typically caps at $10,000. However, VALife offers up to $40,000 for those with service-connected disabilities, with lower coverage amounts in $10,000 increments.​

Monthly premiums range from $10.90 to $1,768 depending on age and coverage amounts.​ ​

How to apply to VA survivor benefits

From health care to education and monthly compensation, there are a number of benefits that spouses and dependents may be eligible for after a veteran dies, even if they never enrolled in the VA system before.​

If the veteran already received benefits, from the VA the agency can automatically initiate payments for burial benefits and DIC; the spouse just needs to inform the VA of the veteran’s passing. ​

If the veteran was already receiving VA compensation or pension at the time of their death, survivors may also receive a one-time payment in the amount that would have been paid to the veteran if they had lived for the entirety of that month. ​

If the veteran was never in the VA system, spouses and dependents may still apply for survivors pension and DIC by submitting their military service record, medical records and death certificate. If the veteran was receiving Social Security disability benefits, the VA can retrieve them on a spouse’s behalf. ​

Remember, the more information provided, the faster a decision can be made. Fill out as much as you can.  If you can’t answer everything, that’s OK: The VA will accept a substantially complete form.​​

“We have a duty to assist as far as it relates to federal records,” said Friel.​

All survivors may receive filing assistance through an accredited veteran service organization (VSO), a VA regional office or by calling the VA benefits hotline at 800-827-1000.​

Review the family member benefits page on the VA’s website to see all the benefits available to spouses and dependents, with links to all forms and contact information. ​ ​

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Oct. 17, 2018. It has been updated with the latest benefit information. ​

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