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.
- Date of Retirement
- Date of Birth
- Mailing Address
- Telephone Number
- Current Coverage
- Reason For the Change
- Requested Change
- Level of Coverage
- Spouse’s Name
- Spouse’s SSN
- Spouse’s Date of Birth
- Date of Marriage
- Date Signed
- Name of Witness
- Witness’s Signature
- Date of Witness’s Signature
- Address of Witness
- 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
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