VA Benefits for Surviving Spouses, Children, and Parents
The Department of Veterans Affairs offers certain benefits to eligible surviving spouses, children, and parents of deceased veterans. Such benefits include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), Survivor’s Pension, and burial benefits. In today’s discussion, attorneys Bradley Hennings and Jenna Zellmer are joined by VA Accredited Claims Agent Michelle Detore to explain some of these programs, and the eligibility requirements for each.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation is a tax-free, monthly benefit dispersed to surviving spouses, children, and sometimes parents of veterans whose death was related to military service or a service-connected condition. You can find the monthly benefit amount paid to survivors on VA’s website. Survivors are not paid the same monthly amount that the veteran was receiving at his or her time of death. Dependency and Indemnity Compensation has its own exclusive rates.
For their survivors to qualify for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, veterans and servicemembers must meet one of the following criteria:
- “The servicemember died while on active duty, active duty training, or inactive duty training;” OR
- The veteran passed away due to a service-connected condition; OR
- The veteran’s death was not service-related, but was entitled to receive VA disability compensation for a totally disabling condition (or Individual Unemployability):
- For a period of at least 10 years prior to death; OR
- Since release from active duty and for a period of at least five years prior to the veteran’s death; OR
- “For at least one year before death if the veteran was a former prisoner of war who died after September 30, 1999.”
To prove Dependency and Indemnity Compensation claims, the claimant will have to establish service connection for cause of death. Service connection for cause of death essentially means that a service-connected disability was the principle or contributory cause of the veteran’s passing. A death certificate is a strong piece of evidence to prove service connection for cause of death because it will list the primary and secondary causes of the veteran’s death—if a service-connected disability is listed here, it will be an essential element to your claim.
If the veteran’s claim is still pending at the time of his or her passing, the surviving spouse may be substituted into the pending claim as the claimant. If service connection is later awarded, the surviving spouse will receive accrued benefits—meaning the retroactive pay the veteran would have received if he or she were alive—up to the date of the veteran’s death.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation for Surviving Spouses
Surviving spouses are typically eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation if they were married to the veteran for a period of at least one year immediately prior to the veteran’s death. Survivors who were not technically married to the veteran may still qualify for these benefits in certain circumstances. VA will recognize common law marriages for DIC benefits if your state’s laws allow. Additionally, VA will allow an unmarried veteran’s survivor to collect DIC benefits if he or she:
- Had a child with the veteran; AND
- Lived with the veteran continuously until the time of their death; AND
- Were not separated from the veteran or, if separated, were not responsible for the separation.
Generally, if a surviving spouse remarries before the age of 57, their Dependency and Indemnity Compensation will be terminated. Surviving spouses who remarry after the age of 57 are eligible to continue receiving these benefits. If a remarriage does occur, but it ends in divorce, annulment, or death, DIC benefits can be restored.
Some surviving spouses may be eligible for additional monthly DIC benefits in certain situations. Surviving spouses who meet any of the following criteria may qualify for an additional monthly benefit, although benefit amounts vary per situation:
- The veteran, prior to death, was totally disabled and receiving, or eligible to receive, compensation for a totally disabling condition (including recipients of Individual Unemployability) for a period of eight consecutive years. The spouse must have been married to the veteran for these same eight years;
- The surviving spouse has dependent children under age 18;
- The surviving spouse requires Aid and Attendance or is housebound.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation for Surviving Children
Surviving children of veterans may qualify for DIC benefits in some scenarios as well. At the time of the veteran’s death, the child must be:
- Under the age of 18;
- Between the ages of 18 and 23 and attending a VA-approved school;
- “Incapable of self-support” due to a disability prior to the age of 18;
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation for Surviving Parents
DIC benefits can be available to dependent parents of a deceased veteran in certain situations, but this benefit operates differently than the program offered to surviving spouses and children—it is a need-based benefit. To determine if a parent qualifies for DIC benefits, an assessment of their income will be conducted to ensure they do not surpass the income limit. By “income” this includes not only what the parent earns, but all of their assets (such as property) as well—including a 401k or IRA.
The term “parent” for VA’s purposes include biological, adoptive, and foster parents. To further clarify, a “foster parent” is defined as an individual “who stood in the relationship of a parent to the veteran for at least one year before the veteran’s last entry into active service.”
How to Apply for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation
Seeking DIC benefits from VA can be a complicated and confusing process—if you feel as though some guidance would be beneficial, we encourage reaching out to a Veteran Service Organization, VA-accredited claims agent, or VA-accredited attorney. Seeking assistance can ensure all of the proper forms are completed and necessary evidence is submitted.
That being said, the formal application for DIC benefits is VA Form 21P-534EZ. If filing for cause of death, indicate this on the form. With your application form, try to submit as much substantive evidence as possible, such as the veteran’s death certificate, marriage certificate (if applicable), and any divorce decrees from prior marriages. Dependent children should submit their birth certificate in every scenario, and school/college transcripts if over 18 and attending full time. VA requires the aforementioned documents applicable to your situation, thus, submitting these documents along with your application form can help to speed up the adjudication process, as VA will likely request them anyway.
Survivor’s Pension (Death Pension)
VA’s Survivor Pension program is a tax-free, needs-based financial benefit reserved for low income surviving spouses and children of deceased veterans with wartime service. The veteran does not have to have been service connected for any conditions while he or she was alive for the dependents to qualify for Survivors Pension. Instead, there are service requirements:
- Veterans who served prior to September 7, 1980 must have served for at least 90 days during active duty military service “with at least one day during a war time period.”
- Veterans who served after September 7, 1980 must have served for two years, or the time frame for which they were ordered to serve, with one day during a wartime period.
- The veteran must have been discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
Similar to DIC benefits for surviving dependent parents, this benefit is based on yearly family income.
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