VA Expands Survivor Benefits For Same-Sex Spouses

The Military Times reports:

Same-sex spouses who were in long-term relationships with a veteran but were not legally able to marry before 2015 may now qualify for survivor benefits under a policy change announced by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The change applies to survivors who — because of bans before a Supreme Court ruling that year making gay marriage a constitutional right — weren’t wed long enough before their spouse died to qualify for benefits under the previous policy.

Last year, Larry Vilord appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims when he was denied the enhanced survivor benefits given to those married at least eight years. He and his late husband, Navy veteran Rhett Chalk, wed in 2017, but were in a relationship for a total of 44 years.

From Harvard Law School:

Lawrence Vilord first met Rhett Chalk nearly 50 years ago, shortly after Chalk returned from active duty as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam. They fell in love and built a life together in Miami Beach, Florida, jointly owning a home, starting a business, and exchanging rings to celebrate their commitment. In 2003, Mr. Chalk became quadriplegic after his knee gave out—the result of an injury he sustained in Vietnam. Mr. Vilord became his primary caretaker until Mr. Chalk’s untimely death in 2020.

When Mr. Vilord applied to VA for enhanced Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a benefit for spouses of deceased disabled veterans, VA denied his claim. Even though he and Mr. Chalk had been together for 44 years and had married in 2017—following the Supreme Court’s invalidation of Florida’s homophobic marriage laws—their marriage fell short of VA’s eight-year requirement for enhanced benefits. “It was another slap in the face,” Vilord says, “another way to delegitimize who we were.”

Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center took up Mr. Vilord’s cause in 2020, twice challenging VA’s discriminatory policies at the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, where an appeal remains pending today.

Nathan Lowry ‘24 and David Paul ‘24, the student attorneys currently representing Mr. Vilord, are optimistic about his individual prospects. “In light of today’s policy change, it’s hard to imagine VA continuing to withhold the benefits it owes to Mr. Vilord,” says Lowry. “I commend VA for recognizing what they should have done and working to resolve this issue for the future,” says Mr. Vilord.

Nevertheless, today’s announcement leaves many questions unanswered. VA stated that, going forward, it will recognize “marriage-like” relationships in determining whether durational requirements have been met. The agency has not clarified how it will define “marriage-like,” how it will handle past cases where survivor benefits were denied, and how it will make such decisions in the future.

Disclosure: Larry Vilord is an acquaintance of mine as he was a co-founder of the Miami-based music distributorship that I worked for in the mid-90s.