For Rebecca Morrison Mullaney, falling in love again after the death of her Army husband Ian is costing about $42,000 a year.
That’s because existing federal rules cut off military benefits to military widows and widowers who get remarried before age 55. Living unmarried with a new partner doesn’t carry the same penalty. Morrison Mullaney said forcing individuals like her to stay in relationship limbo to keep getting their family’s deserved support is a cruel twist on an already difficult situation.
“I love being married .... It’s a beautiful and special thing,” Morrison Mullaney told the Military Times. “I didn’t want my first marriage to end, and I was open to having that again after Ian’s death.” She feels like she’s being punished for finding a new partner.
“It just pisses me off that the rules are stifling a whole generation of people that have already been through hell and given so much.”
Veterans advocates are again trying this year to change those rules, using Memorial Day tributes to fallen service members to remind the public that family members left behind need help too.
These widows and widowers “should not have to choose between another chance at love and financial security,” said Ashlynne Haycock-Lohmann, deputy director of government affairs at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. “They are still the surviving spouse of a fallen service member or veteran, who earned these benefits through their service and sacrifice.”
Legislation recently introduced to address the issue has been dubbed the Love Lives On Act, and has already received bipartisan, bicameral support. The move could impact up to 65,000 military families across the country. It would allow surviving spouses of deceased service members to keep their Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, education benefits, military health care coverage, commissary access and more even if they remarry before age 55.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, told Military Times that “a surviving spouse who is able to find someone to love again after the loss of their husband or wife on active duty or as a result of their military service should not have to choose between getting married again or retaining their earned survivors benefits.” Fellow sponsor Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., in a statement called the move a way to “honor our service members’ sacrifice.”
Morrison Mullaney was 24 when her husband Ian died by suicide. He was an Apache helicopter pilot who deployed to Iraq in 2012. She said he never recovered from the mental health wounds of that time in a combat zone.
After years of her own mental health struggles following that loss, she met Brennan Mullaney (who also served in the Army) and began a new relationship. Along with the struggles of reconciling her feelings towards her lost spouse and new boyfriend, Morrison Mullaney said she had to confront the fact that getting married again would potentially wreck her finances.
The couple said they hold annual celebrations of Ian’s life and work through ongoing grief over his death as part of their relationship. Their son, Harrison Samuel, shares the same middle name of Ian. He remains part of their family even today.
But his military benefits do not. After the pair were married in 2017, thousands of dollars of monthly benefits checks stopped abruptly.
“That was money already earned by him, but now I’ve lost that,” she said.
Morrison Mullaney is among a small group of widows who have worked with TAPS in recent years to advocate for the changes on Capitol Hill. Group leaders said only about 5% of surviving military spouses under the age of 55 get remarried because of the financial penalties.
There has been no public opposition campaign against the Love Lives On Act, but plans to change the remarriage rules have repeatedly failed to pass Congress in recent years because of the costs. Congressional estimates put the cost of the move at $2.7 billion over 10 years.
House rules mandate offsets for any new spending, although supporters of the remarriage bill insist the costs associated with ending the remarriage rules are little more than an accounting trick. They argue the so-called new spending is actually money already owed to those families.
Haycock-Lohmann said she is optimistic lawmakers can get around those pitfalls this session. But the congressional schedule is already crowded for the remainder of the year, with ongoing work on the federal budget and annual defense authorization bill pushed back into the summer by the ongoing debt limit crisis.
Morrison Mullaney said while her family is stable financially now, she wants to see the changes made to take more pressure and anxiety off of future military widows and widowers. She has spent multiple days already this year visiting lawmakers’ offices, letting Harrison crawl around the floors of congressional offices while she pitches the importance of changes.
“I think by being here, it helps put a face on what this means,” she said. “These aren’t just statistics. These are families.”
Veterans in need of emergency counseling can reach the Veterans Crisis line by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255 and selecting option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.