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Veterans’ View: Spouses of deceased veterans should take advantage of often overlooked ‘death pension’

Part of our job as Carroll County Veterans Service Officers is to stay on top of the eligibility requirements and claims procedures for veterans benefits. The Veterans Administration (VA) is the largest federal agency in our government and, unfortunately, can be a very difficult labyrinth to navigate.

The challenge of submitting a claim frequently results in veterans and the spouses of deceased veterans not taking advantage of earned veterans benefits. The Board of County Commissioners, recognizing the challenge, set in place the Carroll County Veterans Services Program, chartered to facilitate veterans and their families’ ability to claim and receive earned benefits and access VA assistance programs. There are, however, continuing challenges with education. Many veterans and the spouses of deceased veterans don’t know the benefits they earned through their service to our country. This article outlines an important but often overlooked and underused benefit for spouses of deceased veterans.

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The benefit is known as a death pension. It is a means (income) based benefit available to the spouse of a deceased veteran who met specific service criteria.

The most recent national statistics reveal only one-third of those eligible for this benefit apply. Many don’t apply because they don’t know the benefit exists, others because they don’t think they qualify and lastly, some do not apply because their age, physical or mental state makes the process too difficult. In this case, it is very important that family members, friends and caregivers have a basic understanding of the benefit and get connected with one of the county service officers.

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The eligibility requirements for this benefit are straightforward. First, the veteran must have served 90 continuous days with at least one of those days being during a period of war (WWII, Korea, Vietnam, current conflict). The veteran need not have been deployed to the theater of war. Satisfying this requirement is determined from the veteran’s discharge papers. Second, the spouse must have been married to the veteran at the time of their death and not remarried since that time. Third, the spouse’s countable income (gross monthly income minus monthly recurring medical expenses) may not exceed an established threshold. And fourth, the spouse’s net worth may not exceed $123,600 minus any countable income.

Often claimants stop when learning the income threshold requirement. It is quite low and immediately discourages further effort. And although it is true that a widow who is living independently (without need for care) generally cannot pass the means test, it does not mean that the benefit is forfeited. Rather, as we age, we frequently find ourselves in a position of needing care from a family member, home care agency, assisted living facility or nursing home. These expenses are often very high and can be deducted from income. More often than not, and in the absence of high net worth, these expenses result in a countable income that meets the VA income requirements.

Net worth is based on “liquid assets” such as money in bank accounts, IRAs, stocks and bonds and annuities. The VA does not consider your home, car and other personal property to be part of your net worth. The VA has recently imposed a 3-year look back rule similar to Medicaid rules. This is an important consideration when establishing eligibility for a death pension.

I mentioned above that the eligibility requirements for a death pension are straightforward. The application process is complicated. A mistake or omission of information in the process will lead to a denied claim. It is much harder to fight a denial than it is to develop and submit the claim with all of the information the VA needs to say “yes."

To that end we recommend the following:

Know your benefits. If you think you may be eligible, if you know someone who might be eligible, or if your loved one is in a home care or institutional care facility, contact your local Veterans Services officer. We are here to help determine eligibility, navigate the claims process and ensure that you have access to the benefits earned for you by the veteran’s service. For more information, contact the Veteran Services Program of Carroll County at 410-386-3800.

Jim Hillman is a Carroll County Veteran Services officer.

On the first Tuesday of each month, the Times publishes as its editorial a Veterans’ View, an opportunity to draw attention to veterans’ issues as well as to inform and educate the community and all veterans about the multitude of available services.

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