WASHINGTON, D.C. - For almost 12 years surviving spouses of veterans have been wrongfully denied benefits. Congress intended for deceased veterans' benefits to be provided to the spouse on the month of the veteran's death, but due to an error by VA, the department has been demanding the money back from the widows. After being notified by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) last week of the problem, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake, M.D. wrote Chairman Akaka that "this problem must be fixed."
Senator Akaka learned of the problem when a Hawaii widow contacted him for assistance after a payment for the month of her husband's death was taken from her bank account by the Treasury. The law was changed in 1996 to guarantee that when a veteran receiving VA benefits died, the spouse would be entitled to a payment for the month in which a veteran died. Looking into this case, Akaka discovered that VA had failed to adjust its computer programs and notification letters to the surviving spouses after the law was changed. As a result, surviving spouses are still being told that the last check they received was an overpayment which needs to be returned to VA. In cases where the money had been spent, for example for funeral expenses, the Department of the Treasury would withdraw the money from the survivor's bank account under laws which allow for recovery of erroneous payments.
"This flawed practice has caused serious hardship for many widows. With over 100,000 veterans a year dying while receiving VA benefits, I suspect that the improper procedures have harmed thousands of widows and widowers over the last twelve years. I am pleased that Secretary Peake has agreed to take immediate action."
"It is difficult to determine if a law is being properly carried out when automated procedures are used. I am grateful to the widow who brought this to my attention. With her help I was able to identify the problem and take steps to make sure that the law passed by Congress is properly being carried out. It is VA's responsibility to care for those who have borne the battle, their widows and orphans. Now that this problem has been brought to light, I trust that surviving spouses will receive the benefits they are due," said Senator Akaka.