When Capt. Philip Menagh was killed in a training exercise in 1984, his death left his wife and five young children with an unfillable emotional loss but also with military death benefits to ensure they could live comfortably in his absence.
But if Nancy Menagh remarried, those benefits would disappear too.
“It was a constant question in my mind of whether I would remain single my whole life or would I be able to make it financially if I got remarried and lost my benefits,” said Menagh, now president of Gold Star Wives of America. “It was already a difficult and emotional decision, and the financial part just made things harder.”
Menagh never remarried, and is now one of the primary advocates for amending military death benefits rules to allow surviving spouses to marry again without losing thousands in payouts each year.
On Friday, a pair of lawmakers reintroduced legislation to address that, eliminating the rules that call for surviving spouses to lose access to Dependency and Indemnity Compensation checks, home loans, education benefits and more if they remarry before age 55. Under current law, spouses who get married again after that age can retain their benefits eligibility.
“It’s unfair and unreasonable,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., a former Army Green Beret who said he knows several military widows struggling with the benefits question. “These rules were put in place at a different time, and now are just arbitrary and don’t make any sense.”
The measure could affect as many as 31,000 spouses currently receiving DIC benefits and under the age of 55. Menagh said she has heard from surviving spouses from all eras frustrated by the limitations.
For spouses from the recent wars, the rules can influence whether they want to consider dating again. For older spouses in long-term relationships, the decision of whether to remarry has to factor in finances as much as companionship.
But the issue hasn’t gotten much traction in recent years because of the potential cost of the fix. Congressional staff estimate the new bill will cost about $180 million over the next decade.
Last year, as part of the annual defense authorization bill, lawmakers dropped the age that individuals can remarry without incurring penalties from 57 to 55. Walz and bill co-sponsor Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. and a Marine Corps Veteran, are hoping to include the new legislation in the upcoming defense policy bill for fiscal 2022.
“This is a penalty for moving on with your life, and that’s terrible,” Moulton said. “These are terribly anachronistic restrictions, and I think they show a lack of respect for survivors.”
Menagh said she is optimistic this is the last year she’ll have to lobby for the changes.
“Of course, you appreciate that these benefits are making sure that we are taken care of,” she said. “But they do leave you with a lot of questions of ‘what if’ as you look at what comes next.”
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.