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Military Death Benefits: Status and Proposals

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Publication Date: March 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32769

Topic: Military and defense (Military personnel)


Department of Defense (DOD) benefits for survivors of deceased members of the armed forces vary significantly in purpose and structure. Benefits such as the death gratuity provide immediate cash payments to assist these survivors in meeting their financial needs during the period immediately following a member's death. Similarly, the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) provides the life insurance policy value in a lump sum payment following the servicemember's death. Other benefits such as the Veterans Affairs Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), are designed to provide long-term monthly income. Additional death benefits provided by the DOD for survivors and dependents include housing assistance, health care, commissary and exchange benefits, educational assistance, and burial, funeral, and related benefits. Survivors may also receive death benefits from Social Security.

In response to P.L. 108-375, February 1, 2005, DOD presented proposed survivor benefit changes during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. DOD recommended an increase in the death gratuity benefit from its current amount of $12,420 to $100,000, limited to servicemembers killed in an area or operation designated by the Secretary of Defense. In addition, the DOD also recommended an increase in Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) coverage from $250,000 to $400,000, with the premiums for the additional $150,000 coverage paid for by the government for servicemembers serving in areas or operations designated by the Secretary of Defense. Military personnel not serving in such designated areas could receive the additional coverage, but at their own expense through higher monthly premiums. As proposed by DOD, both of these measures would be made retroactive to October 7, 2001, when U.S. military operations began in Afghanistan. The President proposed these same increases as part of his FY2005 Supplemental Appropriations request. The Death Benefits Enhancements (P.L. 109-13) increased the Death Gratuity to $100,000 and the SGLI to $400,000 for those who die from wounds, injuries or illness that are combat or combat-training related. P.L. 109-80 and P.L. 109-163 made these benefits permanent for nearly all active duty deaths.

This report describes the various death benefits from the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Social Security available to certain survivors of members of the Armed Forces who die on active duty. (This report does not consider benefits available to civilian employees of the Department of Defense.) Benefits are listed, along with their purpose, how they are calculated, and where appropriate, recent changes. Legislative proposals/changes in the 109th Congress regarding death benefits are also described. Finally, two hypothetical examples for determining a level of death benefits; a Government Accountability Office (GAO) summary comparing military and other death related benefits; and, congressional language from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 National Defense Authorization Act are presented in the Appendices. The report will be updated as events warrant.