Thursday, February 13, 2014

UPDATE: Spouse for VA Purposes

Who is a spouse for VA benefit purposes?

The United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations – the rulebook for the VA – state that a spouse is a person of the opposite sex, whose marriage meets the requirements of the state in which the parties resided at the time of the marriage.  [1]

The Supreme Court recently struck down a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act that stated that for federal purposes, a marriage between members of the same gender could not be valid.  Why did the Supreme Court strike this down?  Primarily because marriage has historically been a state law question.  In other words, each state has defined the rules for marriage as that state sees fit.  Recently, some states have changed their laws to allow two people of the same sex to marry.  Since some state laws conflicted with parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Supreme Court ruled that that part of DOMA was unconstitutional and ordered the federal government to change its regulations to comply.

What does that mean for veterans who are in same sex marriages – or are thinking about marrying someone of the same sex- for purposes of qualifying for veteran’s benefits that are available to veterans with spouses?   The answer currently is that it seems to depend on which state the veteran is in when he or she applies for the benefits. The Obama administration decided to extend military spousal benefits to legally married same –sex couples.  However, since whether a same-sex marriage – or any marriage- is legal is left to the individual states, whether a couple is legally married for military and veterans benefits will depend on which state the parties are in when they apply for the benefits. [2]

For example, Georgia does not allow same sex marriages.  In fact, Georgia does not recognize same-sex marriages even if they were entered into in a state that does allow them.  If a veteran married legally in another state,  moves to Georgia with his or her spouse and then applies for benefits claiming a spouse as a dependent, the VA most likely will not award the benefits since the marriage is not valid in Georgia. 

Contrast this with the same veteran who applies for the same benefits in a state in which same-sex marriage is valid.  He or she will be eligible for the increase in benefits based on the spouse and will most likely be awarded the benefits.  If he or she then moves to Georgia with the spouse, he or she will continue to receive the increased award based on a spousal dependent.  The VA will not likely take the benefits away once awarded.

The VA is currently in the process of changing the language in its code sections, federal regulations, and manuals to comply with the decision in the Windsor case. 

Until the VA does re-write its manuals, and until the new marriage policies are known to all those at the VA, veterans and their spouses may face inconsistent decisions from the VA and my need to fight to obtain benefits to which they are entitled.

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer deny certain benefits to legally married same-sex spouses.  Specifically, Holder stated that spouses would not be compelled to testify against their spouse in court, that spouses can now visit their incarcerated spouse in a federal penitentiary, and that couples can now apply for federal benefits under programs such as the Sept. 11 victim’s fund.   Holder did not specifically mention any VA programs, however, the statements seem to be an indication that the government intends to end forms of discrimination against same-sex couples at least in the programs which are truly federal programs.

[1] 38 U.S.C. Section 101(31) and 38 C.F.R. Section 3.50(a) and Section 3.1(j)

[2] Currently 13 states and the District of Columbia have legal same-sex marriage.  The states allowing same-sex marriage:  California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, Washington, and Washington, D.C.

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