A Long Road to Victory
Widow’s Tax ‘axed’ due to efforts of surviving spouses, VSOs relentless will and spirit
On Dec. 20, 2019, the president signed into law S.1790, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (NDAA), ending the decades-long fight on Capitol Hill for the elimination of the “Widow’s Tax.”
It took more than 20 years of advocacy to finally fix a dollar-for-dollar offset that prevented some 65,000 surviving military spouses from receiving both Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments from the Department of Defense and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Similar to life insurance, SBP is purchased by the military retiree and is intended to provide up to 55 percent of the veteran’s retirement pay to their surviving spouse. DIC is a modest indemnity compensation benefit of $1,319 per month that VA pays to the surviving spouse of a loved one who died from a service-connected wound, illness or injury. Despite the two payments being paid for two different reasons from two different federal agencies, all monthly SBP retirement payments are offset by the DIC payment.
For the last two decades, a widow’s tax bill has been introduced in the House and Senate yearly, but never generated enough support for passage. Despite veterans’ service and survivor organizations having the issue as a top priority, and surviving widows storming the halls of Congress frequently telling their stories to anyone who would listen, efforts were halted each time.
“How are we going to pay for it?” is the resounding response these surviving spouses and leaders were given.
Tired of hearing this response, Kyle Kalman and Gabriella Kubinyi from the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States led a roundtable of veteran and military service organizations, congressional staffers, and surviving widows last March at the VFW Washington DC Office. There a new advocacy plan was born. The roundtable established a single, unified national message resulting in the birth of the hashtag, #AxeWidowsTax. A legislative grassroots advocacy strategy began with the first “Storm the Hill” event garnering press attention. Most importantly, the VFW generated a realistic pay-for option that covered the total cost of the offset – $5.7 billion. The answer to the question that had plagued advocates finally had a definitive answer.
During the Veteran Service Organizations (VSO) annual legislative conferences in Washington last year, elimination of the widow’s tax became the number one concern. VSOs distributed action alerts to their supporters that resulted in tens of thousands of messages to legislators. Surviving widows created a Facebook group with more than 2,000 members nationwide whose grassroots advocacy was targeted and effective in showing the human cost of the offset. Candace Wheeler and Ashlynne Haycock from Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors (TAPS) and Kelly Hruska from the National Military Family Association (NMFA) along with the VFW, organized, promoted and led 75 Gold Star families, VSOs and media in a “Storming of the Hill” event and two press conferences with congressional leadership.
With steady pressure applied on Congress, H.R. 553, Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act and S. 622, Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act of 2019 became some of the most-supported pieces of legislation so far in the 116th Congress. The House bill garnered 384 co-sponsors with the Senate bill tallying 77. While the House included the bill language in the NDAA, the Senate declined to do so. The conference committee was our final hope for this Congress. Fortunately, the representatives and senators on the Conference Committee fought long and hard to keep the elimination of the offset in the final bill.
When news broke that the elimination of the widow’s tax had survived the committee, hearts that had been broken felt a little less painful. This fight was personal to so many of the advocates across the military and veteran community. Two such people were Edith Smith and Jeremy Kitzhaber.
Edith, a Marine Corps spouse who has been considered by many to be the foundation of the widow’s tax advocacy, has been fighting relentlessly to eliminate the offset for two-plus decades. Jeremy, an Air Force veteran and VFW Life Member, served on active duty for 22 years and at the age of 43, less than two years after his military retirement, was diagnosed with Stage IV pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare cancer that spreads through the abdomen. His service-connected illness would have granted his spouse only 20 percent of his retirement paycheck upon his passing.
While we understand serving in our military comes with risks, no one wants military families to face hard financial times after the loss of a husband or wife, or father or mother, due to an unjust offset.
At the VFW, we live by the ethos “We honor the dead by helping the living.” Today, we have all brought those words to life by terminating the unjust widow’s tax.
(Op-Ed written by Kyle Kalman, Associate Director, VFW National Legislative Service)
ABOUT THE VFW: The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. is the nation’s largest and oldest major war veterans organization. Founded in 1899, the congressionally-chartered VFW is comprised entirely of eligible veterans and military service members from the active, Guard and Reserve forces. With more than 1.6 million VFW and Auxiliary members located in over 6,000 Posts worldwide, the nonprofit veterans service organization is proud to proclaim “NO ONE DOES MORE FOR VETERANS” than the VFW, which is dedicated to veterans’ service, legislative advocacy, and military and community service programs. For more information or to join, visit our website at vfw.org.
ABOUT SVA: Student Veterans of America is the country’s premier organization for student veterans. SVA supports all veterans through their transition from the military, educational advancement, and career growth. SVA represents a network of nearly 1,500 chapters on campuses in all 50 states and four countries representing over 600,000 student veterans at those colleges and universities. For more information, visit us at www.studentveterans.org.