The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is probably most well-known for providing veterans with health care coverage and medical services, but the VA also offers a wide array of other benefits to servicemembers and their families. One such program provides qualifying vets with a monthly monetary benefit to supplement their income. This benefit is known as the veterans pension.

Many people do not consider the fact that veterans’ spouses and children also benefit from this added income. When a married vet passes away, this benefit stops and their widow or widower is often left struggling to make ends meet. Many surviving spouses incorrectly assume that there is no longer any help available to them through the VA. Fortunately, a benefit called the survivors pension (also known as the death pension) is a source of financial aid for un-remarried surviving spouses and/or dependent children of veterans.

Eligibility Requirements for Survivors Pension

Like the basic VA pension, there are several eligibility requirements for the survivors pension. These are primarily based on the deceased veteran’s service, but surviving dependents must also meet some guidelines to receive financial assistance.

The first and simplest requirement is that the deceased veteran must have received a discharge other than dishonorable. All other requirements are described in detail below.

Wartime Service Requirements

The deceased veteran must have served at least 90 days of active military, naval or air service, with at least one day taking place during a recognized period of war. The VA recognizes the following wartime periods:

  • Mexican Border Period: May 9, 1916 – April 5, 1917, for veterans who served in Mexico, on its borders or adjacent waters
  • World War I: April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918
  • World War II: December 7, 1941 – December 31, 1946
  • Korean Conflict: June 27, 1950 – January 31, 1955
  • Vietnam Era: February 28, 1961 – May 7, 1975, for veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period; otherwise August 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975
  • Gulf War: August 2, 1990, through a future date to be set by law or Presidential Proclamation

(Veterans who entered active duty after September 7, 1980, must have either served 24 months or the full period for which they were called into active duty with at least one day during a wartime period defined above.)

Financial Requirements

Because this pension is intended to supplement the income of financially needy surviving dependents, it makes sense that the VA requires applicants to demonstrate their financial need. There are both income and net worth limitations that must be met to qualify.

For 2018, a surviving spouse’s annual income must not exceed the Maximum Annual Pension Rate (MAPR) of $8,830. For a surviving spouse with a dependent child, their household income must not exceed the MAPR of $11,557 (add $2,250 for each additional dependent child). Income sources include earnings, disability and retirement payments, payments from annuities, and net income from famring or a business. However, surviving dependents’ countable household income can be reduced by unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed five percent of their appropriate MAPR. For an un-remarried surviving spouse with no dependent children, this threshold is $442. For a surviving spouse with one dependent child, it is $578.

For example, if a widow with one dependent child receives an annual income of $13,000, they would not financially qualify for this pension. However, let’s say that this family also incurs $2,500 worth of unreimbursed medical costs over the course of the year. Their countable income is actually reduced by $1,922 (2,500 – 578 = 1,922) to equal $11,078, which is below the MAPR limit. This family meets the income qualifications for the survivors pension.

When it comes to net worth limits, the VA’s method for determining eligibility is much more complex and a bit of a mystery. Applicants are expected to provide detailed information regarding all the bank accounts, property (except one primary residence) and investments they own. Based on the applicant’s age and life expectancy, the VA will determine whether these assets could reasonably sustain the surviving dependents throughout the rest of their lives. Those found to have “excessive net worth” are considered ineligible.

Additional Requirements for Surviving Spouses and Dependents

An un-remarried spouse of a qualified deceased veteran is eligible to receive the survivors pension at any age. However, once the recipient remarries, they no longer qualify for this monetary benefit. Eligibility may be reestablished if the surviving spouse’s remarriage was annulled or declared void or if the remarriage was terminated due to death or divorce on or after January 1, 1971, and before November 1, 1990.

A veteran’s child only counts as a dependent if he or she meets ONE of the following requirements:

  • Under age 18
  • Under age 23 if attending a VA-approved school
  • Permanently incapable of self-support due to a disability that arose before age 18

Pension Amounts and Uses

Veterans pensions are paid out on a monthly basis, considered tax-free income and can be used however the recipient sees fit. For example, pension funds can help cover the costs of housing, food, medical expenses, clothing, bills, home repairs, transportation, etc.

As mentioned above, the VA sets Maximum Annual Pension Rates (MAPRs) and adjusts them each year to account for changes in the cost of living. The amount that a veteran’s survivor receives is calculated by subtracting their net countable income from their appropriate MAPR. For example, if an un-remarried surviving spouse’s net income totals $7,500, then he or she is able to receive $1,330 in pension funds (8,830 – 7,500 = 1,330). This amount is then split up into 12 equal monthly payments of approximately $110.

How to Apply for VA Pension

Although many veterans, surviving spouses and dependents are eligible for pensions, navigating the filing process is often overwhelming and frustrating. If you think you or someone you know may qualify for a survivors pension, the first step is to locate the deceased veteran’s discharge papers (also known as DD Form 214.)

Ideally the veteran’s discharge papers would be easily accessible if they had already applied for other VA programs, such as Aid & Attendance or burial benefits. If these records have been misplaced, there are a couple of options for tracking them down. The first place to look is at the county courthouse where many vets filed their discharge records upon returning home. If you still cannot find this document, it is also possible to submit an online request through the National Archives eVetRecs site or submit a request via mail or fax using a SF-180 form. Certain fees may apply for requesting replacement documents. Emergency requests can be made, but regular turn-around times can be as long as 90 days.

What many families do not understand is that even if they had already been receiving pension benefits, these will terminate upon the vet’s death. Surviving family members must reapply for the separate survivors pension because there is no automatic enrollment process. Reapplying takes time, so it is crucial for surviving dependents to file as soon as possible, especially if they rely on supplemental income from the VA.

Those filing for the survivors pension will also need to complete and gather the following:

  • VA Form 21-534EZ (Application for DIC, Death Pension & Accrued Benefits by Surviving Spouse or Child)
  • A copy of the veteran’s death certificate
  • Additional personal and household evidentiary documents including proof of income, net worth information, marriage certificate, and all evidentiary documentation for dependent children. (Specifics are outlined in the beginning pages of the above form.)

Where to Find Help Applying for VA Benefits

Including specific and comprehensive information in a VA application is crucial for timely processing and determination of benefits, but many families need help locating and compiling the necessary paperwork. Veteran service organizations (VSOs) like regional offices of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) can provide this assistance free of charge.

Once an application is submitted, there is a waiting period before surviving family members will receive an approval or denial. The amount of time varies according to the backlog of claims the VA is processing, but the average wait time is usually a few months. However, longer waits are to be expected if an incomplete or incorrect application is submitted.