A new law will prevent military retirees from losing Survivor Benefit Plan benefits when their ex-spouse dies before they do, by allowing the benefit to be transferred to a current or future spouse.

The provision, in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act provision, will help an unknown number of people like retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harold Brown, who paid tens of thousands of dollars into his Survivor Benefit Plan for his ex-wife.

Retirees agree to pay a portion of their retirement pay into their SBP so that, when they die, the program will pay an annuity to their surviving beneficiary based on a portion of the retiree's pay.

Brown, one of World War II's famed Tuskegee Airmen, who survived being shot down near Austria and taken as a prisoner of war, has been in a battle with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service since 2013, when his ex-wife died of cancer.

At the time, he asked to transfer his SBP benefit to his current wife. UnbeknownstUnknown to him and a number of other retirees, DFAS had changed its interpretation of the law in May 2013 — and refused to allow him to transfer the benefit.

That new interpretation affected situations in which SBP was awarded to an ex-spouse as part of a divorce settlement. DFAS said that, because the benefit would henceforth be considered part of the ex-spouse's property, the benefit "expired" if the ex-spouse died.

The new provision, which took effect on Nov. 25, fixes that problem for future retirees. It— and also applies retroactively to retirees who were previously unable to transfer their benefits after their ex-spouse died.   

"I've been waiting and waiting and waiting," said Brown, 90. "When I got the news, I was quite delighted. This was just a terrible wrong."

Brown, who hired an attorney to help him pursue the issue, said that he's also happy for other affected retirees.

"There are others who are in much worse [financial] shape. ... It will make a tremendous difference to them," he said.

The new law allows:

  • A military retiree who was married at the time of an ex-spouse's death, or who later remarries, to elect to provide SBP coverage to his or her current spouse. The request must be received by DFAS within one year after the date of the ex-spouse's death. For retirees who remarry after an ex-spouse’s death, the request must be received within one year after the date of the marriage.
  • A military retiree whose ex-spouse died before the effective date of the new law to elect coverage for his or her current spouse, regardless of whether the remarriage happened before or after the ex-spouse's death. The request must be received within one year of the law's after the law was enacted Nov. 25, 2015, enactment.

Information was not immediately available on whether or when DFAS will have revised procedures in place to implement the new law, or whether retirees will simply be able to submit a standard DD Form 2656-6, as they did before May 2013.

Phil Odom, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, said that DFAS had allowed SBP transfers after the death of a former spouse from the time SBP was created in 1972 until the agency changed its interpretation of the law more than 2½ years ago.

Odom said the fact that DFAS made no public notice of the policy change rankled retirees, advocacy groups and some lawmakers.

"The remedy was essentially painless and did not threaten former spouses," he noted.

Brown did not hesitate to name his first wife as his beneficiary when they divorced in 1991.

"It seemed to me the only honorable thing to do," he said in an interview in March. "I would have done it even if it hadn't been for the court order. She was the mother of my two children. How was I to know cancer would catch up with her and she would die before me?"

If Brown had died before his ex-wife, the SBP would have paid a monthly annuity to her equal to 55 percent of his monthly retirement pay.

But after his ex-wife died, he said he simply wanted to name his new spouse, whom he married in 2010, as his SBP beneficiary.

With the passage of the new law, he said, "a terrible wrong has now been corrected. I would like to thank any and all people who played a role in the passage of this law."

The request for the change originally came from defense officials, said Dustin Walker, spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"We thought it was common sense to ensure service members are able to pass their benefits on to their loved ones,." Walker said.

In April, a DFAS official told Military Times that the agency had drafted potential legislation and provided a copy to defense personnel officials. Odom said that MOAA had brought the matter to the attention of defense officials and staff members of House and Senate Aarmed Sservices Ccommittees.

The Military Coalition also adopted the issue as a goal to be remedied in fiscal 2016, Odom said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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