Servicemen’s Widows – And Potential Resources Available

In this episode, Lisa Shoalmire and John Ross discuss some financial resources that could be available to widows of the servicemen who have served our country through the Armed Forces.

Episode Transcript
Lisa
Welcome to Aging Insight. My name is Lisa Shoalmire and I'm an elder law attorney based here in the Ark-La-Tex. And I'm here with my co-host and partner, John Ross, and we bring you a new episode of Aging Insight every week. And we do that because we want to be able to come into your living rooms and give you information that you can use that can really make a difference in your life, particularly as you're addressing some of those issues in retirement and aging and healthcare and legal matters and financial matters, that all comes together at this particular time of life. So we appreciate you watching Aging Insight this week and we're gonna talk today about a group of very special people. And those people are all around us, particularly as we get a little older, and we're gonna talk today about widows of the servicemen who have served our country through the Armed Forces. So today, we're gonna talk about those military spouses or the people that have been married to someone who served in the military but now they are widowed, lost that husband who had served, and we're gonna talk about some financial resources that could be available to these widows of our military servicemen.
John
And, of course, widowers.
Lisa
Widowers, yes. I understand if you're a widower, life is not too bad. There are lots of widows out there.
John
That's right. But whether we're talking about a male veteran or a female veteran, there are a number of different benefits that are available to those surviving spouses, whoever they may be. And we wanted to talk about some of the different ones that are available out there. That way, you just have a better idea of what all is going on out there. So one of the first things I wanted to talk about were retirement benefits. Now, if a person serves full 20 years in the military, they are eligible for retirement. Even in some cases maybe they served less than that but maybe they were retired for medical reasons or something else. But if you receive a military retirement benefit, oftentimes, there will be an election at some point close to retirement that says whether or not you want any of those retirement benefits to be available to a spouse after the veteran dies.
John
And a lot of times... If you join the military at 17 or 18 years old, you retire at the grand old age of 38. You may not remember 60 years later when you're 98 what you picked on those sort of things. You've just been receiving these benefits the whole time. And so, as you're looking down retirement, a lot of times people have a tendency to say, "Oh, well, my husband gets this, the wife gets this so here's what our household income is and that's enough to get us through our years." But it might not be, especially if one of those incomes goes away when one spouse dies. So, you wanna check periodically and make sure you know whether or not those retirement benefits will continue. So, those are the retirement benefits. Now, whether or not the retirement benefits continue, if you had a retired veteran, there's also the eligibility for the health insurance that comes through the VA. Whether this is CHAMPS or whether this is TRICARE for Life. Yeah, Lisa, I would say that for many of our clients that receive TRICARE, the VA military, that that'll act as their supplement to their Medicare, but really good insurance.
Lisa
Yeah, it really is. And it's one of those insurance products that if you happen to be fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of, I would think long and hard before changing your circumstances that would suddenly disqualify you from that insurance, such as remarrying. It's sad in this day and age that that has to be a consideration. But if you are a widow who has access to TRICARE for Life or CHAMPS, you might definitely want to look at the financial side of any potential remarriage, because if you lose those benefits, you can never get that particular benefit back if there's a remarriage and a subsequent death of that new spouse or divorce. So, that's a pretty heavy decision.
John
Yeah, that's right. Now, when we're talking about retirement benefits, primarily what we're gonna be talking about is benefits related to widows or widowers of veterans. But since we're on the topic of retirement benefits, if you were previously married to a veteran who was on active duty, you may... And maybe you divorced that veteran. Generally, when you divorce a veteran, you divorce the VA, meaning that you're no longer eligible for things like retirement benefits or...
Lisa
Even shopping at the BX?
John
Even shopping at the BX. That's right. But if you were married to the veteran... They call this the 10 by 10 rule. If you were married to the veteran for at least 10 years, and that veteran was on active duty for at least 10 years while you were married to them, so you were married to them for 10 years during a 10-year period in which they were in the military, those are the basic requirements for a divorced spouse to be eligible for retirement benefits or a portion of the retirement benefits of the veteran. But a lot of times, these divorces happen when somebody's young and maybe they didn't realize that there were gonna be retirement benefits later on down the road. And then 20 years later, they look back and they say, "Well, wait a second. Maybe I should have gotten something like that." At that point, you probably should be talking to a family law attorney who is experienced in VA matters, because it is possible for a divorcing spouse to get a portion of those retirement benefits. So that's available out there. Not really the main topic of our discussion today, but since we were talking about retirement benefits, I wanted to mention it anyway. Because I certainly... I think I've had that call this week.
Lisa
Well, right, it applies to somebody. So if it doesn't apply to you, maybe that's something that you could pass on to a friend who might benefit from it.
John
That's right. But only so many people actually retire from the military, but there's lots of them that actually served on active duty. Maybe they just did two years or three years or four years, six years, but they're not retired. But there are still benefits out there that are available. And so that's what we're gonna be focusing the rest of our discussion on today. But first, we're gonna take a quick break, so stick around and we'll be right back.
John
Welcome to Aging Insight. I'm John Ross, here with Lisa Shoalmire, and today we're talking about veteran's benefits available to widows and widowers. This is one of those things that just slips through a lot of people's minds, because oftentimes that widow or widower, they don't feel like they're entitled to anything because they weren't the one in the military. Their husband or their wife might have served but they didn't. They were just married to them. And so they forget to look at the VA as a source of potential extra income to help navigate through these later years. And we talked about retirement benefits but, of course, with retirement benefits, the veteran had to have actually retired from the military. And so I've certainly had lots of people, when I mention the VA, say, "Well, John. My husband didn't retire from the military, so I'm not entitled to anything." That's not the end of the story, is it?
Lisa
No, it's not. And it's certainly worth exploring, particularly if you have a spouse who served on active duty during a period of wartime. Mostly what we see now are some widows from World War II, some widows and widowers from Korea, the Korean conflict and even into Vietnam now. But a lot of times, the service... That military service was so long ago, people just don't think of it. But yet now that family, that spouse is 65, 70, 75, 80 plus years old, that active military service that occurred 30, 40 years ago may qualify that widow or widower for some cash-pinching payments on a monthly basis, at a maximum of about $1,100 a month. But just imagine the service of your now-deceased spouse for two years in Korea, could now result in an extra $1,100 a month coming in to you today, in 2014. This is a benefit that is referred to as an Aid and Attendance benefit. And the Aid and Attendance benefit, it is what it says. It is a benefit that is intended to provide some extra cash so that if a surviving spouse of a wartime veteran, now notice I did not say retired military, I simply said wartime veteran. This money may be accessed if that surviving spouse needs a little more help at home in order to stay home and stay independent. And that's what Aging Insight is all about.
Lisa
So the qualifications for the Aid and Attendance benefit, there are some asset limitations, there is some income testing, but for our area, those parameters are not hard to meet. So certainly investigate if the Aid and Attendance benefit is something that you, as a widow or widower, may be entitled to. You can get some assistance in looking at that, certainly through a BA-certified attorney, a veteran service officer that's located in your county courthouse, whether that's Arkansas or Texas, and also your veteran service organizations such as the VFW can also provide some assistance and information about the Aid and Attendance benefit.
John
But one thing about the Aid and Attendance benefit, it really can be a fantastic benefit that can help a person live on their own terms, and whether they're trying to stay at home or whether they're in a facility. Whatever the case is, that Aid and Attendance benefit can be a great resource. But it is tricky to make sure that you know exactly how to fill out the forms and everything to make yourself eligible. Because, as Lisa mentioned, there are requirements. There are certain income and asset levels that you have to meet, and you should know whether or not you qualify for the benefit before you ever submit the application. So if you are talking to somebody, and they say, "Well, just put all your information off and we'll send it off and we'll see what happens."
Lisa
And see what happens.
John
Then you're talking to the wrong person, because anybody with any actual knowledge and experience in dealing with this should be able to look at that application and determine whether or not you're eligible for the benefit, how much you're entitled to receive, and give you a rough estimate as to how long it'll take the process to work through. So when it comes to that Aid and Attendance benefit, it is tricky.
Lisa
Well, and you know, what, John, I love about the Aid and Attendance benefit, is so often I talk to a person in the community who is that widow of that active service, wartime veteran, and they've just not given two thoughts to the fact that there might be such a benefit out there, and it's a really great feeling when you help someone navigate to obtain that benefit, and it makes all the difference in their quality of life, whether staying at home or whether moving into a nice retirement-type community.
John
That's right. So one thing I talk about in a lot of speeches is that when I talk about VA benefits, you yourself may not have ever been in the military or you may not have ever been married to somebody in the military, but that doesn't mean that the friend of yours that sits next to you at church or at your bridge club or whatever it is, that person may be, and they may never have heard that there were benefits available to them out there. So you can certainly help us spread the word by talking to your friends and neighbors and people around you about whether or not they were in the military or whether they were married to somebody in the military and help guide them towards this extra information. Now, of course, the Aid and Attendance benefit is based on the fact that you need Aid and Attendance. You gotta have somebody else's help.
Lisa
Yeah. You gotta have some needs. Yes.
John
So you might be saying, "Well, okay. I was married to a veteran. I am the widow of a veteran or a widower of a veteran. They weren't retired and I'm still healthy. Are there any other benefits available to a widow or widower and sure enough, there are. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna take one more break, and when we come back, we're gonna talk about another category of benefits that are available to widows and widowers that, in the military terms, it's called DIC. And so stick around, we'll be right back and we'll talk about that.
Lisa
Welcome back to Aging Insight. I'm Lisa Shoalmire, here with John Ross. And today we're talking about a very special group of individuals and those are widows and widowers who may be the surviving spouses of some of our active military. Our first segment today, we talked about retirement benefits from the standpoint of a veteran who has served 20 years of active duty, but we've also talked about those benefits that might be available to someone who didn't retire from the military, such as an Aid and Attendance benefit, which is available, that puts cash in the account of that surviving spouse. And John, right before the break, you were talking about, well, Aid and Attendance benefit requires that that surviving spouse needs some extra assistance with their everyday lives. But yet, there is a benefit out there that's called DIC that is available to that surviving spouse and what are the terms of that benefit?
John
And so, like everything with the military, when you could just say the words, you've gotta have an acronym. So they call this benefit the DIC benefit, which actually stands for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, which is a mouthful.
Lisa
Right. Yeah. I know why they cut it down to DIC.
John
And like so many other things with the VA, the name doesn't seem to explain at all what it is. So let me give you a scenario. If a veteran was injured during their service and maybe became disabled, and so maybe throughout that veteran's life or whatever happened, either while they were still in the service or maybe as a result of something that happened during the service, they were eventually rated as disabled by the VA. Now, the VA has lots of different ratings and so, something like a little bit of hearing loss may get you a 10% rating. And so, they had these percentages. But if a veteran is rated at 100% disabled for at least 10 years prior to their death, then that triggers a certain special category for the person that they leave behind. So, if you have a veteran who was service-connected disabled for 10 years prior to their death, their surviving spouse could be eligible for some benefits under this DIC program.
John
Now, if you actually went through the whole process and the veteran got declared disabled and they were disabled for the full 10 years, maybe even longer before they died, claiming the DIC benefit is relatively easy. You just show that you were married to the veteran for at least one year, married to the veteran at the time of their death and not remarried. And once you show that, then the VA will start sending those payments. And it's about $1,500 a month under the current levels, but it also depends on the rank of the veteran while they were in service and a few other categories like maybe whether or not they had been a POW or things like that. But there's actually another category of DIC, and these are a bit harder to come around and find. And these are the folks that... Where the veteran died due to a service-connected injury. Now, this is very obvious if the person was on active duty and was killed during combat, maybe they were shot or hit by an IED or something and they leave behind a widow.
John
Okay. Well, that's relatively clear. What's less clear is maybe somebody who was involved in the Korean war. Here in Texarkana, the marine unit that was based here in Texarkana was an artillery unit and during the '50s, in the Korean conflict, those marines were part of what are known as the frozen chosen. A group of marines that were in a very bad situation in Korea during the winter months. It was a really awful situation. And many of those veterans suffer the effects of that over their lifetime. They might not ever see that as being service-connected, maybe they just don't sleep well, maybe they wake up with nightmares, but all of that might cause... It might cause heart problems, it might cause high blood pressure. So, things like PTSD that have been sitting there, that's post traumatic stress disorder, that has been sitting around since the 50s could be the reason that the veteran died.
Lisa
Well, that's right, John. You talk about our Korean vets that were in the area, they may suffer from things like neuropathy in their feet where they just don't have the good nerve feeling and everything in their feet or extremities, and maybe that all started back when they were serving in those extreme conditions in Korea. But young men come home from war and they just wanna get on with their lives and they certainly don't whine on a separation paper about any injuries or results from their combat service, they just wanna get out of there. So it can be if you've had a veteran that, for instance, our Vietnam veterans that may have served in country, and maybe their death was a result of something like Parkinson's and those type diseases, ALS. We've been seeing a lot of the ice bucket challenges, but those type diseases, while they may not be apparently service-connected, there's been a lot of research and there's even some assumptions that we make if a veteran perishes from one of these diseases and served during a particular time during wartime.
John
That's right.
Lisa
So to get that DIC benefit, if that veteran had not been previously declared disabled, what's involved?
John
Well, and that's where the really tricky part comes in because, oftentimes, you are dealing with a situation where you have a cause of death and then the key is linking that cause of death to whatever occurred during the military service, and that can be difficult. This can be a long and arduous process but that extra income can be well worth it for the person that was left behind. And knowing a number of veterans, I think most of them would appreciate that if you put a little hard work into it...
Lisa
Some sweat equity.
John
Just a little sweat equity into it, getting that benefit that that veteran would've enjoyed knowing that their service provided for their surviving spouse. So it can be very difficult to do that. That is a situation where you're going to need a team of individuals, medical professionals who are experienced with dealing with the VA and people who, like elder law attorneys and VA service officers who are used to dealing with these type of claims because it can be very difficult.
Lisa
Well, and that's another thing. If there's a veteran in your life, you wanna get those stories from that veteran for your family pride and family history and know how they served, but just having a little bit of knowledge about their service can end up being very helpful if they leave a widow or a widower behind. So many times we don't know very much about the service of some of the veterans 'cause they didn't talk about it when they came home. So get those stories.
John
That's right. And, as always, if you have more information that you're hungry for, that you're trying to get out there and we haven't answered it here on the show, you can always give us a call at our live call-in radio show on 107.1 every Saturday at noon. We're sitting there in the studio just waiting to take your call and answer your questions. So, feel free to check us out there. You can also reach us on the internet at www.aginginsight.com. And so, we hope you'll check us out there as well, and of course, check us out right here with a new episode every week, right here on KLFI Channel 10.
Lisa
Alright. Great. We can't wait to see you next week. Thanks.
John
Bye bye.

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