Why Don't Widows Already Get GI Bill?


When I was told that a bill making its way through the Senate would allow military widows to use their spouse's GI Bill, I was dumbfounded.

How is that not already a thing? We actually need a new law to make sure that a widow can use her  spouse’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit after his death even if he didn’t transfer it in life?

To give you an idea of how ridiculous it is that this is not already true, consider the following: My husband, after a certain number of years of service with a certain number left to stay Army, can choose to either use his Post-9/11 GI Bill or transfer it to me or our children. He can even split it between the two of them so we don’t have to play favorites with education cash.

He can do these things because he is alive to make it happen.

A military widow, whose husband has been killed in service, can pass that GI Bill over to their children, thanks to a provision in the GI Bill known as the Fry Scholarship Program.

But because her spouse has been stripped from her by war she cannot use it herself. Widows are eligible to receive money under Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance Program, a federal grant, but it does not cover the full cost of tuition and fees. Using the post-9/11 GI Bill, however, would cover everything.

Except they can't have it.

The idea behind GI Bill's current spouse transferability is to allow members of military families to increase their education so that they can get employment, too. I cannot imagine someone more in need of reaching that goal than a military widow.

While the new bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon and Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada, is expected to pass this time around (unlike in the past when it ultimately died) there are some detractors out there. Here are some of the arguments we’ve heard against passing this provision and our responses.

The Arguments

Military widows receive a lot of benefits after their husbands' deaths. Surely they can fund their education with some of that cash. Are you really going to tell me that amongst all the financial demands she faces, the money given a widow in exchange for her husband’s life should be thrown into the education system so that she can eventually hold a job? Are you really going to tell me that the payout shouldn’t be used instead to buy groceries, support her family, secure a home after the military stops giving BAH, or a world of other necessary things? I wouldn't dream of telling a widow what to do with her money. But I would suggest that she is going to face some other serious needs in her lifetime and that, perhaps, a pricey college experience doesn't bubble to the top.

And this while the rest of us still have our spouse, still draw our full paycheck and still (when eligible) get to transfer our GI Bill.

It’s too expensive. In this climate of sequestration, as we watch federal employees take furlough days and see programs lopped off right and left, it’s hard to encourage new provisions that would require new money. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that this bill would cost $200 million over 10 years. Since the CBO tends to estimate at the high end, you can be pretty sure that it will cost less.

I think the country can spare at most $20 million a year to make sure military widows can afford an education and, hopefully, find employment as a result -- don’t you?

Fine, but only widows of combat fatalities should get it. That's a joke, right? It's not very funny. Are you trying to tell me that one kind of military death makes the people left behind more or less capable and taken care of than another kind of military death? Are you saying that a a widow of a training accident, for example, is going to be less sad and have more money laying around for school than the widow of someone who died in a firefight? Ridiculous.

You can tell your representatives what you think about this bill over here at our Legislative Center.

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