The so-called "military widow's tax" was repealed last week with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and marks a significant step forward in helping the nation's gold star families, advocates say.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sponsored the Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act, which has been repeatedly introduced in the Senate for nearly two decades. Provisions of the bill were included in the final NDAA, which received final passage in the Senate last week and was signed into law by President Donald Trump.
"This bill is unquestionably a win for Alabama and for military families across the country," said Jones, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We worked hard to make sure this bill reflects our values, and that's why it includes so many provisions to not only shore up our national defense, but to take care of service members and their families.
"The passage of this bill is a huge bipartisan success and will have a broad, positive impact on Alabama and the many military installations across the state."
The bill earned a record-high 78 total cosponsors in the Senate and passed with a total vote of 94-0.
The law in question was enacted in 1972, and advocates say it has prevented some 67,000 surviving military spouses, including 2,000 in Alabama, from receiving their full survivor's benefits from the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
There are two types of survivor payouts for military families: the VA's Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) fund, which awards about $15,000 a year to families of those killed of service-related causes; and the Pentagon's Survivor Benefit Plan, which is a life insurance policy of sorts that pays families up to 55% of a veteran's retirement benefits after they die.
Previously, military widows and widowers who qualify for the DIC were required to take a dollar-for-dollar offset from the SBP, even though their retired spouses elected to pay into the program. That could cost families as much as $11,000 a year.
Cathy Milford, a surviving military spouse from Mobile said she was denied her full benefits for 26 years.
"The long fight to repeal the Military Widow's Tax has been difficult and none of us want to talk repeatedly about the deaths of our spouses, but that has been necessary to inform our public officials and ask for their help," Milford said in a press release. "Though I will be 76 when my husband's benefits are fully reinstated, I am happy to know that those who sadly become military widows and widowers in the future will no longer have to fight this battle year after year."
Other provisions included in the now-enacted defense bill were 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers, a 3.1% pay raise for troops, the authorization of a U.S. Space Force and restitution for victims of Iranian terrorism.
The bill will also provide funding for key Alabama projects like ship-building, helicopter construction, and combat vehicle upgrades. Those provisions included:
-- $151.6 million in funding for the Army's Future Vertical Lift Helicopter Modernization Program will help the Army's Future Long Range Assault Aircraft Program achieve its goal of having the first unit equipped (FUE) by 2028. Bell Helicopter in Ozark is competing for the contract to provide the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft.
-- $1.281 billion for the award of one Guided Missile Frigate FFG(X) contract. Austal USA, in Mobile, is competing for this work, and keeping the program on schedule is important to its local workforce and suppliers.
-- $249.2 million for Stryker Combat Vehicle Lethality Upgrades to increase standoff distance, improve survivability, and retain our Army's superiority, as directed by the National Defense Strategy. Stryker production begins and ends in Anniston, with over 300 employees involved in production.
Funding to support military families and their children were also included, like that $40 million for Impact Aid to schools serving military children to address challenges from frequent deployments, security requirements and concentrations of children with disabilities.
The Daleville City Board of Education, Enterprise City Schools, and Madison City Schools educate 1,481 children of active duty military personnel and depend upon these resources to help address the unique challenges faced by these children.