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Reservists to Get Equal Death Benefits Under Bill

Airmen from the honor guard at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, finish folding a flag during a memorial service Jan. 22, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joshua Green)
Airmen from the honor guard at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, finish folding a flag during a memorial service Jan. 22, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joshua Green)

National Guard and Reserve members would receive the same death benefits as their active-duty counterparts under a bill expected to pass Congress this week.

As it stands now, family members of Guardsmen and Reservists killed during inactive training receive a much smaller monthly payment than those of active-duty members. For example, a survivor receives $1,036 a month if the spouse was killed on inactive training status, yet another receives $3,381 if the spouse was killed on active duty, according to a fact sheet from the Defense Department.

The benefits are paid out under Survivor Benefit Plan, or SBP, but how the amounts are calculated differ between those killed on active duty and on inactive training status -- even if they died side-by-side during the same accident.

For those on active duty, the amount is based on a simple percentage of what the troop's retirement payment would be. For those in the Guard or Reserve, the amount is based on a more complicated three-step formula that factors in Reserve points and years of service, among other items.

In addition, survivors of active-duty members qualify for an additional payment designed to get around a rule that blocks them from receiving full death benefit payouts from both the Defense Department and the Veterans Affairs Department. But the allowance doesn't extend to those of Guardsmen and reservists killed on in-active training.

The legislation includes language championed by Rep. Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat, to fix this inequity. The bill was approved by the House and is expected to pass the Senate this week before heading to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature.

"A discrepancy between survivor benefits for fallen service members of differing active duty statuses was finally remedied," Veasey said in a statement. "This long overdue change will now make available equal survivor benefits for all who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country and will hopefully alleviate some of the financial stress experienced by our military families."

Pentagon officials have struggled to make accurate payments due to the complexities of the existing policy.

A 2012 audit by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service found that between 2001 and 2012, 95 surviving Guard and Reserve families were overpaid $3.5 million in death benefits because their benefits documents didn't properly indicate service members died while on inactive duty, according to the fact sheet. For instance, during that period, an Army spouse received an overpayment of $224,000, it states.

Although federal law requires those who received government payments to give the money back, Pentagon officials chose to waive repayment, the document states. "The families who received the overpayments shared no fault and could not reasonably have known they were being overpaid," it states.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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