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The widow of a deceased Marine officer pleaded Tuesday with a congressional panel to revise restrictions on survivor benefits when a surviving spouse remarries.
Vivianne Wersel, whose husband, Marine Lt. Col Rich Wersel, died in 2005, one week after returning from a second tour in Iraq, protested a law that denies dependency and indemnity compensation from the Veterans Affairs Department to a survivor who remarries before age 57.
"I cannot afford to live without my DIC if I remarry," said Wersel, who has two teenage children and has not earned retirements from her job as an audiologist because she has not worked enough years.
"It is not fair that a law dictates whether someone can remarry and still retain her survivor benefit or not," Wersel said. "It has been two years since my husband's death, and I am now out of my fog of grief. I reflect on how bizarre it is that anyone should have to wait until a certain age to find a partner again and remarry."
Wersel testified before the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs on behalf of HR 704, a bill sponsored by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., that would lower to 55 the cutoff age for receiving veterans' survivor benefits upon remarriage.
The Defense Department uses age 55 as the threshold for determining whether a surviving spouse who remarries is eligible to continue receiving military survivor benefits. Under the military's rules, survivor benefits are suspended if a spouse remarries before age 55 but are restored if the marriage ends in annulment, divorce or death.
The Bilirakis bill would apply the same age limit to VA survivor benefits, including dependency and indemnity compensation.
Before 2003, remarriage at any age led to the cancellation of VA survivor payments. The age 57 threshold was put in place effective Dec. 16, 2003.
Since that change took effect, the idea of revising the remarriage age has been considered but never approved, even though the VA said several years ago that it has no objections to such a move.
Cost and priorities are factors in why Congress has not lowered the remarriage age. While a cost estimate on HR 704 has not been completed, similar bills in the past have been assigned a price tag of around $300 million over five years, which would be slightly higher today because survivor benefits increase each year to keep pace with other veterans' benefits. When there has been $300 million to spend on new or expanded veterans' programs, lawmakers have not chosen to spend it on revising the remarriage rule.
Wersel, testifying on behalf of Gold Star Wives of America, said she hoped Congress would finally do something.
"Those who would benefit from this bill are those who are retired or are preparing to retire, those living on a fixed income and those, like me, who have foregone continuous careers in which to build their own retirement to support their military spouses and family," she said. "It should not be up to the government to provide disincentives to marriage and, particularly, not for widows of those who served their country.
"The choice to remarry is one that should be left to the surviving military spouse," Wersel said. "Our government should not make this decision for her."