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Officials ask: Do GI Bill transfer rights help retention?

Mar. 29, 2011 - 01:04PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 29, 2011 - 01:04PM  |  
Army 1st Sgt. Steven Colbert takes a moment out of his day to read with his son, Jordan. Colbert is looking forward to transferring his GI Bill benefits to pay for Jordan's college education.
Army 1st Sgt. Steven Colbert takes a moment out of his day to read with his son, Jordan. Colbert is looking forward to transferring his GI Bill benefits to pay for Jordan's college education. (ROB McILVAINE / ARMY)
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Who is eligible?

Transfer rights are available to service members who have unused Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and agree to four more years of service. The four-year requirement is reduced for anyone who is eligible for retirement before Aug. 1, 2013.
Transfer to a spouse:
• Requires the member to have a minimum of six years of service.
• Spouse may begin using benefits right away. Benefits expire 15 years after the member separates from the military.
• Spouse receives tuition and fee payments but is ineligible for living stipends.
• Beginning Aug. 1, a spouse may receive the $1,000 per year book allowance.
Transfer to a child or children:
• Requires the member to have a minimum of 10 years of service.
• Benefits may be used right away or until a child reaches age 26.
• A child is eligible for the living stipend and book allowance.
Terminating transfer:
A service member may revoke a transfer at any time. Divorce from a spouse or a child’s marriage does not affect eligibility.
Multiple transfers:
Benefits may be divided among several people as long as the total number of months of benefits does not exceed 36.

More than 180,000 service members are approved to share Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits with spouses or children, but defense officials remain concerned that the ability to transfer unused benefits to family members is not enough to prevent troops from leaving the military to use the benefits themselves.

About 1.4 million active-duty service members have earned or are earning benefits under the 1½-year-old education program, but only about half are eligible to transfer benefits to a spouse or child. That requires a minimum of six years of service and an agreement to serve four additional years, in most cases.

The initial attraction of sharing benefits has been strongest for troops who are retirement-eligible or nearing retirement, because they are most likely to have dependent children.

Military personnel officials are waiting to see whether younger people — who may have joined the military because they needed money for college — decide to leave service to use the benefits, or stay in and share them with their families.

In a statement provided March 17 to the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon's top manpower official said the new GI Bill — with its promise of full tuition plus a living stipend and book allowances for someone attending a four-year college or university — appears to be a strong recruiting incentive, but its value as a retention incentive is less clear.

"We hope that the provision in the new program that allows career service members to transfer their unused GI Bill benefits to immediate family members, long requested by both members and their families, will mitigate negative retention impacts," said Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

"Early results look favorable," he said, adding "we are monitoring the effects of this implementation very closely to gauge impact on retention, particularly first-term retention."

Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., introduced legislation March 16 that would greatly expand GI Bill transfer rights, but his Education Assistance to Realign New Eligibilities for Dependents (EARNED) Act would do nothing to help keep people in the service.

The bill, HR 1130, would give people who retired from the military before they transferred unused Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits another opportunity to do so — without the four-year service commitment that applies to people on active duty.

This proposed authority would extend to anyone with 20 or more years of service and a retirement date from Sept. 11, 2001, to Sept. 30, 2011. For practical purposes, someone who retired before Sept. 30, 2004 — who would not have the three years of service since 2001 that are required to be eligible for full Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits — would get full benefits only if they were retired on disability. But those with less service still could have some benefits to share.

Aides said Alexander is sponsoring the bill because of complaints from retirees who were ineligible to transfer GI Bill benefits unless they were still in the service when the program launched Aug. 1, 2009, or who had never heard about the benefit before they retired.

Alexander's bill was referred to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, which is considering a package of changes in the GI Bill. Committee aides said Alexander's proposal is not new and could be difficult to fund; the committee would have to find a way to pay for the expanded benefits at a time when Congress is talking about cutting federal entitlements.

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