Updating Survivor Benefit Elections (The Sad Story of SSG Walker)

Let me tell you about Staff Sergeant Jason Walker who can teach us all a lesson.  We can learn a great deal from his example.


Staff Sergeant Walker reached twenty years of qualifying service in the National Guard in 1998.  He was thirty-eight at the time.  He received a twenty-year letter a few months later.  Since he was single at the time, he chose to do nothing and let his Reserve Component Survivor Benefit Plan default to the “by law” election after ninety days.  In 1998, the default election was to defer a decision until age sixty (better known as Option A) when he would apply for his retired pay.


In 2009, SSG Walker, now a gray-area retiree, married forty-two-year-old Amy Strothers.  He registered his marriage certificate in the DEERS database and got his new bride a military ID card.  He also told her that she automatically would receive part of his pension if he passed away.


In 2016, while working on his roof, he fell off a ladder and fractured his spine.  He died in the hospital a few days later.  He was fifty-six years old.


Several months later, after the whirlwind inherent with the death of a loved one had passed, Mrs. Walker contacted me at my office.  After doing some research and asking some questions, I had to inform Mrs. Walker that there would be no survivor annuity for her.  Her only consolation would be Tricare coverage in 2020.


Do you see what happened here?  SSG Walker never updated his RCSBP election when he got married and he died before becoming eligible for retired pay.  The law prior to 2001 stated that reservists who did not make an election for RCSBP upon receiving a twenty-year letter would default to Option A.  This means no one gets anything if he dies.  He had one year from the date of his marriage to change his election to cover his wife.  This never occurred.


This is easily one of the sadder situations a retirement services officer can encounter.  We are a group that likes to say yes and do what we can to enable people rather than telling them there are limited options due to poor decisions or lack of action on someone’s part.  I was unable in this case to find anything else that could be done for Mrs. Walker.  The thought of Tricare in four years was of little comfort to me and I am sure even less for her.


Now we get to the moral of the story.  Rather than causing future harm on our loved ones, it is best if we make or update survivor benefit elections in a timely manner.  Believe it or not, it is a lot simpler than it looks.  As with so many things, especially paperwork, it is much scarier on its surface than it actually is. There was one time I had to talk a person through doing this over the phone.  He was another full-timer and I was so out of it with sickness I barely remember the conversation.  However, at the end, he still said, “That’s it?” and I responded that indeed that was all.


You can update a survivor benefit election using a DD Form 2656-6. I will put a link to it in the references below.  Using SSG Walker as a reference, here is a list of the questions he would have had to answer in order to add his wife to the plan.  Read it once (and get scared by it) and then think about how little effort it would actually take.


  1. Name
  2. SSN
  3. Date of Retirement
  4. Date of Birth
  5. Mailing Address
  6. Telephone Number
  7. Current Coverage
  8. Reason For the Change
  9. Requested Change
  10. Level of Coverage
  11. Spouse’s Name
  12. Spouse’s SSN
  13. Spouse’s Date of Birth
  14. Date of Marriage
  15. Signature
  16. Date Signed
  17. Name of Witness
  18. Witness’s Signature
  19. Date of Witness’s Signature
  20. Address of Witness
  21. Date of Expiration of Notary’s Commission (if applicable)


So we have a total of twenty-one questions here and the last one is only needed if the witness is not a certified survivor benefits counselor.  All that would be needed in addition to this information is the marriage certificate.


I am not one to usually say anything positive about paperwork, however this would be an exception.  If you take a look at this form, it is quite versatile in its design.  You can make an SBP change due to divorce, death of a beneficiary, the birth of a child, marriage, or remarriage to an earlier spouse.  All you need to do is check the appropriate block and attach a supporting document.


That is all there is this week.  It’s a fairly simple topic and I hope this information has proven useful to you.  If you know of anyone else who can benefit from this article, pleases share it with them.  I also welcome any questions or comments you may have.  Please post them in the comments section below.


Once again, thank you for being a part of the audience today and thank you for your service.



DD Form 2656-6


Related YouTube Episodes:
SBP Episode Playlist

Podcast Episode 0049 – Updating Survivor Benefit Elections (The Sad Story of SSG Walker)

Let’s learn a valuable lesson from a tragic story.

DD Form 2656-6


Related YouTube Episodes:
SBP Episode Playlist

YouTube Episode 0051 – Updating Survivor Benefit Elections (The Sad Story of SSG Walker)

DD Form 2656-6


Related YouTube Episodes:
SBP Episode Playlist

Eligible SBP Beneficiaries

The funny thing about holidays, especially if they fall on a Monday, is they tend to cause you to lose track of what day it is.  I am writing this on Wednesday night rather than my usual Monday night routine.  I completely forgot what day it was.

I will also confess I got distracted by a few comments from the YouTube channel.  I had some very interesting questions which caused me to do a lot of additional research into answers.  For all that, I do apologize.  The good news, particularly for those who consume the podcast or my written articles, is there will be no noticeable delay.  However, since I use these articles as talking points for the YouTube episodes, I’ll be posting that new chapter very late in the evening.


Now, let’s get on with today’s topic.  This is actually what I had planned to cover back on the day when I decided to do the medical retirement series.  See how the best laid plans can be changed by life?  😊


Today, I will cover the types of people who can be beneficiaries under the survivor benefit plan.  This will be a fairly straightforward and short article…I think.  We’ll see as I write.


When Elections Are Made

Both when you receive a twenty-year letter (the Reserve Component Survivor Benefit Plan) and when you apply for retired pay (the Survivor Benefit Plan), you make some sort of survivor benefit election.  Even making no choice at all, under current law, is making a choice.


So who is covered or can be covered by this plan?  Who will receive a lifelong annuity based on your retirement income (even if you don’t live to receive it yourself) if you die?


Beneficiary Choices


Spouse Only

Both versions of the SBP were designed primarily as a form of income protection for the spouses of service members.  Naturally, this makes them the most common choice as a beneficiary.  The spouse even has the option to object if you choose to decline SBP coverage.  If anything less than full coverage is selected, the spouse has to agree and have the election form notarized.


For the Reserve Component SBP, the cost for coverage is based on the difference between your age and your spouse’s age.  There is a complex table of values used to determine this cost and I won’t cover that here.  The cost usually is no higher than three and a half percent of retirement.  For the other SBP (the one that covers you when you start receiving your retired pay; let’s call it the Active Duty SBP), has a maximum cost of 6.5% of retired pay.


Spouse and Children

You can also choose to select your children – in addition to your spouse – beneficiaries for SBP (in case both you and your wife die).  This is very cheap coverage since the children will “age out” over time.  They are eligible to receive the annuity (divided equally among them) until they turn eighteen or, if they’re full-time students, until they turn twenty-two.  As a child ages out, the annuity is recomputed to pay an equal amount to those who are still eligible.


If you have selected this option, the difference in cost over what it would have cost to cover only your spouse is pennies.  I recall one time when a retiree asked me to compute the difference between the two premiums (covering his wife only or his spouse and children) and the difference was seven cents more to cover his children also.


Former Spouse (or Former Spouse and Children)

Sometimes a divorce decree will order a member to provide survivor benefits for an ex-spouse.  At other times, the service member voluntarily chooses to do this.  If either of these happens, there is a little bit of additional paperwork to make this happen, but it is quite simple.  The costs for this are the same as Spouse or Spouse and Children.


Children Only

As I said earlier, children can age out of eligibility for the SBP annuity, but you can choose to cover them instead of a spouse or choose them if they’re your only dependents.  The cost is slightly higher for this option but it is typically only a few dollars per month.  I believe ten dollars is the highest I’ve ever seen.


One thing to keep in mind is whether the child (or children) is (are) disabled to the point they are incapable of providing their own support.  If this is the case, the age limits I mentioned earlier do not apply.  There are some additional documentation requirements, as I’m sure you expected, like physicians’ statements and sometimes even court orders, but they’re not too difficult.


The only real burden is this.  SBP will not pay an annuity to a minor or to someone who is incapable of making sound decisions on their own.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to either appoint a guardian (with the proper documents, of course) or to establish a special needs trust.  I will post a link to an FAQ from findlaw.com which describes this kind of trust (this is not an endorsement of the site, just some good information.  Do your own research to find what meets your particular need).


The other thing to keep in mind if you’re choosing to cover a special needs child is the impact the income from the SBP annuity might have on any sort of state or federal assistance they may be receiving (another good question for a lawyer).  Many forms of welfare are income-dependent and SBP is considered a type of income.  Again, do the research and choose what is best for you and your child(ren).


Natural Interest Person (NIP) AKA Insurable Interest

A natural interest person (or, as I’ll call it, an insurable interest) is typically any other person who is either closely related to you (like a cousin, parent, or sibling) or who has a vested interest in your continued survival (like a business partner).  These people can be listed as SBP beneficiaries, as well.


There are two downsides to this sort of election.  First, the premiums are significantly higher.  The costs are a minimum of ten percent of your retirement up to a maximum of forty percent (depending on the difference between your age and the age of the person).  The other factor is the annuity is lower.  Instead of a flat fifty-five percent of your retirement being paid as the annuity, this sort of beneficiary receives an annuity based on the following formula.


(Retired pay – SBP premium) X 55% = Monthly Annuity


In other words, the cost of the premium is subtracted from your retirement and then the annuity is fifty-five percent of what is left.  It can actually work out that the annuity is less than the total premium you are paying.  Keep this in mind before making this type of election.


The good news, though, is you can choose to cancel an insurable interest election at any time.  This is quite different from any other beneficiary election because those are usually locked in unless you have a qualifying life event (like a divorce or the death of a beneficiary).


No Beneficiary

If you have no eligible dependents and do not wish to make an insurable interest election (based on what I just described), you can opt not to participate in the Survivor Benefit Plan.  If you have a change in your status, you can make an update to your decision within one year of the change.



Lastly and similar to the no beneficiary option, you can choose not to have SBP coverage at all.  If you’re married, as I said before, your spouse has to agree with this decision and the election form has to be notarized (you don’t need a notary if you choose full coverage for your spouse).


Well, that is it for SBP beneficiaries.  This didn’t turn out to be too horribly long after all.  Thank you for joining me.


Next week, I plan to cover changing SBP elections.  I believe this is a critical action on the part of the service member for a variety of reasons.  I’ll talk about why that is next week.


As always, I ask that you spread this information to people whom you think could benefit from it.  Let’s continue building this audience.  Thanks for joining me today and, of course, thank you for your service.





Department of Defense Instruction 1332.42 – 20090623 – Survivor Annuity Program Administration

Special Needs Trusts FAQs (Findlaw.com)


Related YouTube Episodes:

SBP Episode Playlist


Podcast Episode 0048 – Eligible SBP Beneficiaries



Department of Defense Instruction 1332.42 – 20090623 – Survivor Annuity Program Administration

Special Needs Trusts FAQs (Findlaw.com)


Related YouTube Episodes:

SBP Episode Playlist

YouTube Episode 0050 – Eligible SBP Beneficiaries



Department of Defense Instruction 1332.42 – 20090623 – Survivor Annuity Program Administration

Special Needs Trusts FAQs (Findlaw.com)


Related YouTube Episodes:

SBP Episode Playlist

The Basics of the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)

I originally wrote this article as part of a script for my YouTube and podcast episodes on this topic. The total length ended up being over 3000 words. For ease of reading, I am going to break up the script into a series of shorter articles. There will be links to other parts of the total article at the end of each section.

Basic Description
Today I am going to talk about the Survivor Benefit Plan. Like its reserve component version, this is one of the most important decisions a service member must make. Also, just like the talk about the Reserve Component Survivor Benefit Plan, this episode will probably be longer than usual. This is a vital decision for every retiree so I want to be sure everything is understandable. The terms I may use are typically those used by the Army, but the information itself is the same for all branches of service. Enough prologue, I’d say; let’s dive right into today’s subject.

What is the Survivor Benefit Plan?
As I said in my articles about the reserve component version of the Survivor Benefit Plan, retired pay stops with the death of the retiree. There is no method by which a retiree may pass on his retired pay to another person in a will or other legal instrument. The Survivor Benefit Plan – or SBP – is the only way a person receiving retired pay can pass on a survivor annuity to a family member. Notice that I said, “annuity,” rather than retired pay or pension. This is not your retirement. It is something you are purchasing separately to leave some form of survivor income for your family.

So, when do I have to make this critical decision?
Very simple. You make this election when you apply for retired pay.

What happens I don’t make an election?
If the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) has no evidence that you are single and have no dependents, they will automatically set your SBP election to spouse and compute a generic premium for you to pay. If you do in fact have no eligible beneficiaries and this default election occurs, you will need to contact a retirement services officer or DFAS directly to get the election changed.


10 USC Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 73, Subchapter II: Survivor Benefit Plan
Survivor Benefit Plan (Defense Finance and Accounting Service)
Advantages and Disadvantages of RCSBP / SBP
RCSBP Fact Sheet
$550 per month from SBP Compared to $100,000 Life Insurance: How Long Will It Last?
$2200 per month from SBP Compared to $100,000 Life Insurance: How Long Will It Last?
DD Form 2656 – Data for Payment of Retired Personnel
CG Form 4700 – Coast Guard, PHS, & NOAA Retired Pay Account Worksheet and Survivor Benefit Plan Election


Related YouTube Episodes:
The Basics of Reserve Retirement
The Notice of Basic Eligibility for Retired Pay (Twenty-Year Letter)
The Basics of the Reserve Component Survivor Benefit Plan


Related Articles on This Topic:
The Basics of the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)
How Much Will The SBP Pay My Beneficiaries and How Much Will It Cost?
Should I Buy a Life Insurance Policy Instead of Choosing the Survivor Benefit Plan?
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of the Survivor Benefit Plan?
What Are the Coverage Options and Who Can Be Beneficiaries of the SBP?
How Do I Enroll in the Survivor Benefit Plan?