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Casualty Assistance: Survivors’ Benefits


Survivors of service members must not only face their grief head on, they must also learn about the casualty benefits due to them. The following information is meant to help you understand survivors' benefits and how to obtain them.

Casualty assistance (calls) officer

In the event of a service member's death, a casualty assistance officer in the Army and Air Force - or casualty assistance calls officer in the Navy and Marine Corps - is assigned to help the family with important matters. The officer serves as a liaison between the service member's family and the service branch. The CAO or CACO is expected to be both empathetic and professional in order to provide adequate support to the next of kin. When performing casualty assistance duties, this assignment takes precedence over all other conflicting responsibilities.

The CAO or CACO is assigned to help the family for an indefinite period of time, until the family determines that assistance is no longer needed. CAOs and CACOs help families understand benefits and entitlements and complete claim forms.

Funeral and burial benefits

  • Preparation and transportation of remains - The remains of all service members are handled with dignity, respect, and utmost care. Families are provided the following services in relation to the deceased: the recovery and identification of remains; the return of personal effects; embalming or cremation services; and transportation to the funeral home or location identified by the person authorized to direct disposition.
  • Funeral services - Full military funeral honors - including military representation, a burial flag (with presentation to next of kin), and the playing of Taps - are available to all deceased military service members at no cost to their families.
  • Gravesites - When eligible, deceased service members are entitled to burial in a gravesite in a national or private cemetery with available space. Cremated remains are buried or interned in a niche (a recess in a wall for placement of an urn) in cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains.
  • Other services - The deceased service member's family is also offered the following related burial services at no cost: perpetual care (if buried in a national cemetery), a government headstone or marker, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate.

Initial compensation

The death gratuity is a payment of up to $100,000 for the survivors or other individuals identified by the service member prior to his or her death while serving on active duty. Families of reservists who die while on or en route to active duty, or those in a drill status, are also eligible to receive the death gratuity if designated by the service member.  The death gratuity may also be payable if an eligible member or former member dies within 120 days of release or discharge from active duty.  The longstanding purpose of the death gratuity has been to provide immediate payment to assist survivors of deceased members of the armed forces to meet their financial needs during the period immediately following a member's death and before other survivor benefits, if any, become available.

Insurance, annuities, and other payments

  • Unpaid pay and allowances, or pay arrears - When a service member dies, any unpaid pay or allowances due to the service member will be paid to his or her designated beneficiary. Unpaid pay and allowances may include the following: unpaid basic pay, payment of accrued leave, any specialty payments, amounts due for travel, per diem expenses, transportation of eligible family members and unpaid installments of reenlistment bonuses.
  • Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance - Under this life insurance program, service members pay premiums from their monthly income. The maximum payout upon death is $400,000 to the primary beneficiary. This amount could differ if the service member requested a lesser amount of life insurance or declined the benefit altogether. The member may also designate multiple beneficiaries in increments of 10 percent.
  • Dependency and Indemnity Compensation - A benefit paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs, DIC payments may be payable to surviving spouses of deceased service members (if they remain unmarried), as well as unmarried children under age 18. Parents of deceased service members may also be entitled to these payments if they have limited income and the individual died while in service or due to a service-related disability.
  • Uniformed Services Survivor Benefit Plan - The surviving spouse and children of a service member who died while on active duty are eligible to collect monthly payments from the military under the SBP. The amount received is based upon the deceased service member's number of active duty service years at the time of death. The amount would equal 55 percent of the retired pay that the service member would have been entitled to at the time of death. This compensation is taxable.

Social Security and tax benefits

  • Social Security Administration lump-sum death payment - The SSA will pay a lump-sum death payment of up to $255 to the surviving spouse of a service member who dies while on active duty. If no spouse survives the service member, the only other individual eligible for the payment is the service member's oldest child.
  • Monthly survivor benefits - It is important to remember to contact the SSA soon after a service member's death so that long-term benefits can begin quickly. Following the lump-sum death payment, the SSA will provide other monthly benefits to eligible surviving family members. The amounts of those benefits depend on time in service and the amount of money contributed through payroll deductions.
  • Tax benefits - Several payments made to surviving dependents of deceased service members are tax exempt. These include: Social Security benefits, death gratuities, burial benefits, VA pension and compensation payments, any cash gifts willed to survivors by the deceased and life insurance policy payouts. It is a good idea to contact your local Internal Revenue Service office to find out information about your current tax status.

In addition, spouses of service members who die overseas as a result of a military action do not have to pay federal taxes on income earned by the service member during that year.

Health and dental care benefits

  • Medical benefits - Unmarried surviving spouses of deceased service members can continue to receive health care benefits at no cost for three years after the service member's death. After that time, spouses can continue at the retiree dependent rate. Children can continue with TRICARE coverage up to age 21, or age 23 if enrolled in a full-time course of study in an institution of higher education approved by the administering secretary. TRICARE Young Adult allows children of eligible beneficiaries to continue medical benefits until age 26 on a premium-based program.
  • Dental benefits - Dependents of deceased service members may be eligible to receive dental benefits through the TRICARE Retiree Dental Plan if the family is no longer eligible for benefits under TRICARE's Family Member Dental Plan.

Other benefits

  • Commissary and exchange benefits - Unmarried surviving spouses of deceased service members, as well as their unmarried children under age 21 (or 23 if the unmarried child is enrolled in full-time education), are eligible to continue shopping at base commissary and exchange facilities. Surviving family members receive new ID cards that reflect their current benefits and privileges.
  • Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) - Surviving family members living in government housing at the time of a service member's death may continue living there rent-free for 365 days. Survivors who vacate government housing may receive the balance of BAH from the time of vacating through the 365th day of eligibility. Surviving dependents not living in government housing at the time of a service member's death are eligible to receive a tax-free BAH for the 365-day period.
  • Educational assistance - Under the Dependents' Educational Assistance program, children (ages 18 to 26) and spouses of deceased service members can receive educational assistance to attend various colleges and universities. Your local VA office can help you obtain information on how to apply for this benefit.
  • Montgomery GI Bill® - In the event of the service-related death of an active-duty service member, the VA will refund any monies which the service member put into a Montgomery GI Bill® account to the beneficiary of the service member's SGLI.
  • State benefits - Several states also provide benefits for survivors of deceased military service members. These benefits can include bonuses, educational assistance, civil-service preference, loans and employment assistance. Your local VA office or local government officials can provide more information on exactly which state benefits you may be entitled to receive.

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