Veterans Owe Thousands for Survivor Benefits. Why Can’t They Opt Out?

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On an afternoon in late February, Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, who goes by Dan, got in his truck and drove down the dirt road near his house in Westcliffe, Colo., to meet his son’s school bus at the bottom of the hill. It is one of few tasks Dan, who is 54 and retired, can still manage on his own after being wounded in Iraq in 2004. As he waited, he checked his mailbox, where he found a letter addressed to him from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, an office within the Defense Department. When he opened the letter, his stomach dropped. It said Dan owed the government money for something called the Survivor Benefit Plan and that the department would start deducting the program premiums from his monthly entitlement for combat-related disabilities. The notice also said he owed $23,451 in unpaid premiums, plus interest, that he was expected to pay.

Dan and his son drove back to the house, where he found his wife, Torrey, working at her desk. He dropped the letter on her desk in frustration. “They are going to start garnishing my pay again,” he said. Torrey picked up the letter and read it. There was no explanation of their rights nor any mention of an appeals process. She tried to calm her husband down, but he was visibly shaken. He was stuttering, his balance was off and the corner of his mouth had tightened.

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