Some same-sex spouses of veterans who were previously ineligible for survivor benefits will now be able to receive the assistance payouts under policy changes announced by the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday.
Officials said the move is designed to support same-sex couples who had been together for years but were unable to be legally married until 2015, when the Supreme Court required states to recognize same-sex relationships in the same way as heterosexual unions.
“VA is closing a gap in benefits for surviving spouses of LGBTQ+ Veterans, righting a wrong that is a legacy of the discriminatory federal ban on same-sex marriages,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement.
“It is VA’s mission to serve all veterans — including LGTBQ+ veterans — as well as they’ve served our country, and this decision is a key part of that effort.”
VA officials could not say how many individuals may be affected by the change.
The new policy applies only to individuals who were married between June 2015 (when the Supreme Court decision was issued) and June 2017, and whose veteran spouses later died.
At issue is how those individuals qualify for VA survivor pension benefits and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation payouts.
Under current law, individuals must be married to a veteran for at least a year before the veteran’s death in order to qualify. If the couple is married at least eight years before the death, the rate of some benefits increases.
But because same-sex couples could not legally marry before 2015 across America, some veterans in long-term relationships could not qualify for the payouts.
VA officials said for veterans who had a same-sex marriage in that two-year time frame, they will consider additional evidence that the couple was in a stable relationship prior to the 2015 marker, and will use that to determine eligibility for benefits.
Examples of proof of relationship status can include “a commitment ceremony, a joint banking account, or joint purchase of a house,” officials said.
The new decision is effective immediately, and survivors can apply today for benefits.
Individuals who apply in the next 12 months can receive benefits backdated to Oct. 11, 2022. However, no retroactive benefits will be awarded before that date to any individuals.
The new policy also will not benefit any same-sex couples who were married after June 2017. Same-sex couples who waited until after that date to get married will fall under the same eligibility criteria as heterosexual couples married then.
Survivor pension benefits through VA are based on financial needs. The Dependency and Indemnity Compensation payout, given to surviving spouses of veterans who die from a condition related to their military service, receive about $1,400 a month if they were married for less than 8 years, and about $1,700 if they were married eight or more years.
In letter last July, a group of 41 Senate Democrats led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., urged McDonough to make the changes to help same-sex veteran couples, saying the move would “help end the discriminatory treatment of potentially thousands of same-sex veteran couples and allow them to access the benefits they are owed.”
The policy change follows an announcement in fall 2022 that VA would review the cases of other-than-honorable veterans who were booted from the military under the now-repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
VA officials said they would restore benefits to individuals who could prove their dismissals were based on their sexual orientation and not other misconduct in the ranks. However, the department so far has not released details on how many veterans have applied or have been granted the benefits.
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.