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Guide to military survivor benefits

When a member of the military dies in combat, financial considerations are the last thing to come to mind. But as family members pick up the threads of their lives after losing a spouse, parent or child in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, the service member's death benefits can help shape their future.

The service branches quickly provide grief and benefit counseling to help shell-shocked relatives navigate immediate needs, such as paying bills and making funeral arrangements. The services also make sure relatives know what long-term benefits they have coming and what paperwork they need to access benefits.

In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the beginning of hostile action in Afghanistan and Iraq, the federal departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense revitalized the VA's Casualty Assistance program, incorporating a requirement that casualty assistance officers, who are assigned to help individual survivors with burial arrangements and benefits, must personally visit survivors.

Survivor resources
Families of the more than 3,000 service members killed in the wars have access to a number of one-time and ongoing benefits. Besides VA death benefits, survivors are also entitled to Department of Defense and Social Security Administration benefits. Many benefits also apply to reservists or National Guard members who die while under federally activated orders or who are on inactive duty for training.

The main toll-free number for information on death benefits at the VA is (800) 827-1000 or online at www.vba.va.gov. The Department of Defense's portal to casualty benefits is found online at www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil. An overview of Social Security benefits available to survivors is at www.ssa.gov or via a toll-free number, (800) 772-1213), which is answered from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Each branch of the services has its own casualty assistance center:
Air Force:

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, is a nonprofit organization designed to provide support for survivors. Their toll-free, 24-hour hot line at (800) 959-8277 connects you to peer support, crisis intervention, grief counseling and assistance in sorting out survivors benefits. Gold Star Wives, a congressionally chartered organization for widows and widowers of those killed while on active duty, provides a list of resources. Military.com, for which Bankrate.com is a content provider, also offers a summary of services and links.

Benefit overview
Benefits range from those designed to deal with immediate needs, such as transporting relatives to funeral services, to meeting ongoing financial needs and providing education benefits for surviving spouses and children, among many others.

Survivor benefits
Here's a rundown of the benefits in various categories:
Benefits overview
1. Immediate assistance.   4. Education benefits.
2. Funeral benefits. 5. Health insurance.
3. Monthly payments. 6. Other.

1. Immediate assistance.
In the wake of the death notification, family members often are in shock and may be too upset to think about financial issues. So that bereaved survivors won't suffer from a cash crunch, the law requires that death benefit payments be made to surviving family members within 72 hours of the death notification. This includes insurance payments from Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, which depend on how much insurance was purchased, and a death gratuity payment of $100,000.

One problem a number of survivors have run into is an out-of-date beneficiary designation on insurance.

"There remains a problem even today where soldiers who quickly get married before deployment fail to update their SGLI designations," says Terry Howell, senior content manager at Military.com, a Monster.com-owned military information and resource site.

Even if the beneficiary is out-of-date, the closest relative at least gets the death-gratuity benefit. "The intent on quick payment is so that family members have the ready cash available to do whatever is necessary, such as pay off immediate debts, make funeral arrangements, cover transportation costs for themselves and family members," Howell says.

Next: "Many other benefits are available. ..."
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