Theresa Jones is the surviving spouse of Lt. Cmdr. Landon Jones. She lives with her two sons in Coronado, California, near their final duty station, where she works in real estate while attending school for marketing.
Earlier this month, I sat down with my financial planner. The first thing I said was, "What do I owe?" As he pulled the papers out of his briefcase, he seemed to nervously skirt the question.
"The new tax law was not kind to you this year," he said.
After we went over all of the paperwork, I saw that I owed $5,400 for my sons’ death benefits, up from $1,150 the previous year. I was stunned. I told my financial adviser this increase works out to essentially be a car payment every month (without the car), and that this was not going to be sustainable.
We scrambled funds together so I could write checks, giving back to the government the money they gave these boys as a result of the deployment death of their father.
A few weeks later on Easter Sunday as I watched my boys hunt for eggs, I told a friend as I discussed the issue, "I'm not sure I can afford to live here much longer at this rate, and if things like this continue to pop up."
The last little bit of stability my children have has now been put on the chopping block.
My struggles with the system governing benefits for the families of fallen service members did not begin with the new tax law, however.
On Sept. 23, 2013, I sat at my dining room table with my casualty assistance officer, my close friends and a lot of paperwork.
Just 24 hours prior, I had been notified that my husband, a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, was missing after his aircraft had been washed off a ship while deployed in the Red Sea. The casualty affairs team had come back to inform me that the search for him and his co-pilot had officially been called off, and he was declared deceased.
Reeling from the trauma of a nightmare that was only just beginning, I now had mounds of paperwork to fill out, and decisions to make regarding the government death benefits that would be offered to my family. After 10 years of making major financial decisions with my husband, I alone had to decide what was best for me, our six-year-old son and the two-month-old son whom my husband never met.
I asked my friends, who were financially savvy and enormously more clear-headed than I was at the time, to sit with me as the casualty officer went over my options, because I was so scared to make these decisions alone.
A major dilemma loomed before me: I could have all of the death benefits go to me and I would receive them for life or until remarriage, or I could split the benefits and put some in my children's names. Under that plan, they would receive their portion until the age of 18 or until the age of 22 if in school full time, and I would receive my portion for life or until remarriage.
There were no hard numbers for me to consider as that wasn't something within the scope of the casualty officer's position. It was such a fog, and I didn't understand why I would need to split them. I asked the casualty officer if I could think about this decision. He obliged, and my friends and I looked to other resources for information.
The next day, a Navy widow who had a child and lost her husband nine years earlier came over to my house with her laptop. She showed me a website from a Navy-affiliated insurance company where I could type in my husband's service information and it would calculate numbers under the two different benefit plans.
It was then I learned that I could not concurrently receive both the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits that were offered because my husband was killed due to his military service, and Defense Department benefits that were part of an insurance plan to continue to provide 55% of what would have been my husband's retirement pay to his survivors. I learned the DoD would take away dollar for dollar what the VA offered me, essentially wiping out the benefit. With a two-month-old, a six-year-old and household bills looming, I chose to give the DoD benefits to my children to make sure to maximize the amount of monthly income we could receive.
The widow warned me that, as children, they would pay hefty taxes each year on the benefits, but it was survival at that point. My husband's pay had stopped immediately, and rent was due in a week. I filled out a W-4 for a first-grader and an infant and hoped I made the right decision.
Each year as tax time came around, I would owe well over a thousand dollars federally for the boys' "unearned income," even though it was already pre-taxed before they received it. I had my financial planner and CPA run different scenarios every year, but it was the same outcome. They are kids with no tax shelters and, even though I asked for the feasibility of a three-year-old having a mortgage in his name, the bill was always the same each year.
That is, until my 2018 taxes were due.
Looking back, I still disapprove that survivors are even faced with the decision of choosing whether to sign over their benefits to their children. Survivors without children are the most severely penalized as they do not have the option to split.
Still, it's a hard pill to swallow to write a check back to the government every year for these boys. Now, their obligation to the government has risen so high because they have been lumped into a category with the wealthiest families in our country, families who have both parents to celebrate a child's birthday, to be at their college graduation, to watch them get married, to hold their grandchildren -- who never wonder what life would have been like if their lives had not been forever changed by loss.
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