Spouses of deceased service members and veterans would be able to keep getting survivor benefits if they remarry at any age under a bill inching forward in the Senate.
Right now, surviving spouses who remarry before age 55 become ineligible for benefits such as the Department of Veterans Affairs' Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and the Defense Department's Survivor Benefit Plan.
A bill from Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., would eliminate that age restriction. In addition to maintaining benefits for anyone who remarries in the future, the bill would let surviving spouses who remarried before the measure becomes law resume collecting benefits.
Advocates and VA officials testified about the bill to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week the day after it was introduced. In an interview with Military.com on Wednesday, Warnock expressed hope that the committee will soon follow that hearing by sending the bill to the Senate floor.
"What I'm trying to do with this bipartisan legislation is correct a wrong," Warnock said. "People who have lost their loved ones defending our freedom shouldn't have to struggle with deciding whether or not at a time of their choosing they should be able to move on with their lives, all the while honoring the love of their spouse who was killed."
The so-called remarriage penalty for surviving spouses has been a longtime concern of advocates for veterans and military families.
Two years ago in the annual defense policy bill, lawmakers lowered the age at which survivors can remarry and keep VA benefits from 57 to the current threshold of 55. But advocates say 55 is still an arbitrary cutoff and that younger spouses are in need.
The bill could help an estimated 65,000 surviving spouses who receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, or DIC, and are under age 55, according to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, which considers Warnock and Moran's bill a top priority.
"Given that many post-9/11 surviving spouses are widowed in their 20s or 30s, we are asking them to wait over 20 years to remarry and retain their benefits," Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann, TAPS' deputy director for government and legislative affairs, said at last week's Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. "Many surviving spouses have to put their lives on hold to raise grieving children. They rely on survivor benefits to help offset the loss of pay for their late spouse and their own lost income as a result of the demands of military life."
Less than 5% of surviving spouses who are younger than 55 have chosen to remarry, often because they'll lose benefits, according to TAPS.
Warnock highlighted the story of a constituent who was left to care for her 6-month-old daughter alone after her husband was killed by an improvised explosive device.
"The good news is that she was able to go on using his benefits to get a master's degree to build a kind of life for her and her daughter. But had she remarried, she would have been denied access to those benefits," he said. "It's unfortunate that this is a consideration that people would have."
Warnock and Moran's bill, dubbed the Love Lives On Act, was introduced last year but went nowhere. There have also been similar proposals from other lawmakers in the past that have failed to gain traction. But Warnock vowed to keep pushing until the bill passes, saying building awareness of the issue in Congress and among the public is key.
"I think a lot of people, including some of my colleagues, are not necessarily aware of this way in which we're not living up to our obligation to our service members and their families," he said.
In addition to letting remarried survivors keep DIC and Survivor Benefit Plan benefits, the bill would apply to certain education benefits and commissary and exchange privileges. It would also let remarried spouses regain Tricare coverage if the remarriage ends in death, divorce or annulment.
The measure has three other cosponsors: Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
VA officials who testified at last week's hearing said they generally support the bill but requested some tweaks to the language. In particular, they took issue with the provision resuming DIC benefits for those who remarried before age 55 prior to the bill becoming law.
"The bill as written implies that VA would be responsible for identifying all potential claimants who were either denied or terminated eligibility for DIC due to remarriage," the VA said in written testimony. "This would require extensive outreach efforts and the implementation of methodologies that would require significant implementation time to address the lack of personally identifiable information available to VA regarding an individual who is not currently in receipt of benefits."
The department also argued the bill would create a disparity between those who remarried before age 55 and those who remarried between 55 and 57 since the previous change in law required spouses to reapply for benefits rather than automatically regranting them.
Warnock said he is willing to engage with the VA on potential changes to the bill but that he is "not willing to make perfect the enemy of the good."
"Our service members are the best among us, and not only do they serve, their families serve," he said. "We ought to honor their sacrifice, and we ought to make sure that their survivors, particularly their children, have access to the kinds of benefits that they have duly earned so that they can thrive."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.