The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a Survivors Pension benefit, also sometimes known as a Death Pension, to qualifying surviving spouses and certain qualifying dependents.
This is a tax-free VA benefit intended to help “a low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse and/or unmarried child(ren) of a deceased Veteran with wartime service” according to the VA.
This is a need-based benefit and is not available to all applicants. To qualify, part of the process involves establishing the yearly family income for the household that would receive the benefit if approved.
For those who qualify for this VA death pension, the Department of Veterans Affairs agrees to pay the difference (in 12 monthly installments each year) between the applicant’s countable income and the Congressional pension limit.
Who Qualifies For The VA Survivors Pension Benefit
There is a two-pronged qualification process. The first is based on the VA requirements for the servicemember who died–they must:
- Have a military discharge not characterized as Dishonorable.
- Have served 90 days or more of active military service, with at least one day during a wartime period as defined by the VA. This requirement applies to all who served on or before Sept. 7, 1980.
- Those with qualifying active duty service AFTER Sept. 7, 1980 requires a minimum of 24 months on duty OR the full period for which called or ordered to active duty with at least one day during a wartime period.
Eligible Wartime Periods
As mentioned above, VA Death Pensions may be offered to the surviving spouse or dependents of a military member who died with at least one day of service during a qualifying wartime period.
The VA defines these wartime periods as follows:
- Mexican Border Period (May 9, 1916 – April 5, 1917)
- World War I (April 6, 1917 – Nov. 11, 1918)
- World War II (Dec. 7, 1941 – Dec. 31, 1946)
- Korean conflict (June 27, 1950 – Jan. 31, 1955)
- Vietnam era (Feb. 28, 1961 – May 7, 1975 for Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam at that time; otherwise Aug. 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975)
- Gulf War (Aug. 2, 1990 – through a future date to be set by law or Presidential Proclamation)
Income and Net Worth Limitations
For this benefit the VA must determine the household’s countable income which can include earnings from all members of the household. That includes any eligible dependents, disability payments, retirement pay, etc. You may also find that interest and dividends, income from farms or small businesses are also part of your countable income.
Some things can result in a reduction of the countable income number, which is a big help for those in need of this benefit. Unreimbursed medical bills, and other expenses permitted by the Department of Veterans Affairs may help to lower your overall net worth or countable income.
The VA has set a net worth limit (at the time of this writing and subject to change via legislation or VA program policy modifications) at just over $127 thousand per year.
Applicants must report their entire net worth, described as the “sum of a claimant’s or beneficiary’s assets and annual income” by the VA. You will be required to fully report your net worth in order to qualify for this program.
Who Can Apply For The VA Death Pension
This VA benefit is need-based and the annual household income total must meet congressional limits to qualify.
Unremarried surviving spouses of qualifying service members (see above) are eligible to apply for the death benefit regardless of the spouse’s age. However, there are age restrictions for dependents, who must be a child of a wartime veteran who has died AND:
- Has not yet turned 18 OR
- Has not turned age 23 and is taking classes at a VA-approved school OR
- Has been declared permanently incapable of self-care before the age of 18.
How The Death Benefit Is Calculated
There is a Maximum Annual Pension Rate (MAPR) calculation, which is subject to change each year depending on legislation, program guideline changes, and other variables.
How these rates are calculated depends on the nature of the household getting the benefit. The VA Death Benefit may be calculated including (but not limited to) the following:
- Without Dependent Child
- With One Dependent Child
- Housebound Without Dependents
- Housebound With One Dependent
- Aid & Attendance (A&A) Without Dependents
- A&A With One Dependent
Increased Survivor Benefits
Some applicants who have a need for VA Aid & Attendance services may also be interested in claiming increased survivor benefits based on that need. Approval for increased VA survivor benefits may be possible for those who meet VA criteria including:
- The applicant has corrected vision of 5/200 or less in both eyes.
- The applicant has a “concentric contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees.”
- The applicant is a patient in a nursing home due due to incapacity.
- The help of another person is required by the applicant to perform personal functions required in everyday living.
- The applicant is bedridden, which is defined by the VA as having a “disability or disabilities requires that you remain in bed apart from any prescribed course of convalescence or treatment. Applicants will be required to prove they are “substantially confined to your immediate premises” because of a permanent disability.
Apply For The VA Death Pension
You can apply for the VA Death Pension by downloading VA Form 21P-534EZ, “Application for DIC, Death Pension, and/or Accrued Benefits.”
Complete this paperwork and submit by mail to the VA Pension Management Center in your state. You can find these centers using an online VA tool called the VA Facility Locator.
What You Should Know Before Filling Out VA Form 21P-534EZ
You will need to provide supporting documentation with your VA form including a death certificate and other proof of service. You may be required to submit proof of legal marriage and other documents as required by VA.
When filling out the form you are asked to submit “all necessary income and asset information”; this may take time to gather and assemble completely for submission.
Never send originals to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Always send copies and be prepared to spend a bit of extra time locating and duplicating your documents. Your documents generally cannot be returned to you once they have been submitted.
It’s best to give yourself plenty of time to accomplish this, especially if you do not have all the required documents at your disposal. If you are trying to meet or beat a deadline, this process may prove to have a will of its own. It is best not to expect the VA to be in a hurry with any single claim or request.
In cases where an applicant may be applying for multiple benefits at the same time, additional requirements may apply. For example, the VA instructs spouses who need to claim a Survivors Pension along with a special monthly pension, the following requirements may apply:
- A completed VA Form 21-2680, Examination for Housebound Status or Permanent Need for Regular Aid and Attendance.
- In cases where the applicant is a patient in a nursing home, a completed VA Form 21-0779, Request for Nursing Home Information in Connection with Claim for Aid and Attendance is also needed.
- The VA official site advises that surviving spouses will have extra paperwork to gather when claiming benefits “for a child or biological/adoptive parent of the veteran.” For example, a copy of the birth certificate (or adoption records from a court of law) “showing relation to the veteran.”
- If claiming benefits for a child of the veteran (between the ages of 18 and 23), VA Form 21-674, Request for Approval of School Attendance may also be required depending on the benefits you seek.
- When claiming on behalf of a “seriously disabled child of the veteran” any relevant, private medical treatment records that document disabilities before the age of 18 will be necessary.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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