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Death gratuity benefit explained

Military families face no greater challenge than dealing with the loss of a loved one who died while serving their country.

The support and love within families and from friends can help survivors manage their grief in the days, weeks and months following a tragedy. But beyond the emotional challenges, such a loss can present short- and long-term financial security issues.

This is especially true when the death of a loved one is under investigation to determine whether or not it was in the line of duty. Typically, that determination can take six months to a year.

Through the Casualty Assistance program, the Defense Department supports families of missing, ill, injured and deceased service members and DOD civilians. This program includes the death gratuity benefit, which is intended to provide immediate support for surviving military family members to help them deal with the financial hardships that accompany the loss of a service member.

Death gratuity defined

The death gratuity is a lump-sum, tax-exempt payment of $100,000 provided by the DOD to assist the survivors or other people identified by a service member prior to their death. It is normally paid to eligible beneficiaries within 72 hours of the receipt of DD Form 397, “Claim Certification and Voucher for Death Gratuity Payment.”

This military death benefit is dependent on the service member dying while on active duty, active duty for training, inactive duty for training or within 120 days of release from active duty, if the death is service-connected.

The death gratuity is compensation for military service, and it is provided to families in other industries as well, as authorized by numerous federal statutes. This includes families of coal miners and firefighters, for example, who receive a death gratuity to help them deal with financial crises following their loved one’s death.

Death gratuity eligibility

A service member may designate any person or persons to receive up to 100% of the death gratuity (in 10% increments), with any remaining amount payable using a predetermined ranking.

Learn about the death gratuity

This eTutorial will detail what the death gratuity means to you and your loved ones.

Although you may be able to complete the DD Form 93, “Record of Emergency Data” electronically, it’s better to visit your personnel center in person because you will need a witness when you fill out the form or make changes to a previous form. This will also allow you to ask questions and make sure you are getting the best and most up-to-date information.

It is important for service members to keep their DD Form 93 updated to ensure that the death gratuity and other important benefits reach their intended beneficiaries in a timely fashion. The Record of Emergency Data should be updated as follows:

  • During initial entry into the service or upon employment review
  • Upon reporting to a new duty station
  • When ordered into periods of temporary duty in excess of 30 days
  • Prior to all deployments, regardless of length
  • Prior to departure on PCS orders
  • Following a life-changing event such as marriage, divorce or the birth or adoption of a child

Free financial counseling

Financial counseling is available to eligible survivors through their military service or Military OneSource.

Item 11a on the form, under “Instructions for Preparing DD Form 93,” includes the hierarchy of this military survivor benefit should a service member not designate a beneficiary or beneficiaries or if the full amount is not designated.

The purpose of the death gratuity is to provide an immediate, one-time, nontaxable payment to surviving family members to keep them free from the financial hardships that can accompany the loss of a service member until their death benefits kick in.

Free financial counseling

Financial counseling is available to eligible survivors through their service or Military OneSource.

Death gratuity history

The death gratuity program, first established in 1908, has a long history and has evolved to support surviving family members more effectively.

Prior to the creation of the program, survivors were left financially vulnerable after the death of their military service member.

The program was initially intended to provide financial coverage for survivors due to the absence of adequate life insurance security. Then the government began providing life insurance in 1917 as the United States became heavily involved in World War I, leading to a repeal of the original death gratuity laws, which was thought to be unneeded. A few years later, however, the program was reinstated.

Changes since then include the Act of June 20, 1949, which extended eligibility to reservists and National Guard members, so long as they were on an active duty or training status at the time of their deaths.

In the 1980s, there was pushback in Congress over efforts to increase the monetary amount provided by the death gratuity because some members believed that expanded Social Security benefits, dependency and indemnity compensation and Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance made the increase unnecessary.

But recent changes ─ primarily due to the United States’ involvement in war ─ have resulted in more financial assistance. One of the most significant, Public Law 109-13, was signed into law in May 2005. Most notably, this change increased the gratuity amount from $12,000 to $100,000 for eligible beneficiaries.

Prior to May 25, 2007, the death gratuity was payable according to a specific hierarchy prescribed in law, with no opportunity for the member to designate a beneficiary. But service members may now determine their own beneficiaries.

Additional information

For additional information on the death gratuity, review the following resources: 

  • Take the Completing DD Form 93 MilLife Learning course to learn about the death gratuity benefit and what it means to you and your loved ones. You’ll learn about the benefit, which generally provides immediate funds to designated survivors when a military service member dies on active duty.
  • View the Military OneSource Death Gratuity video for more information, assistance on DD Form 93 and the importance of filling it out and keeping it updated.
  • Consult A Survivor’s Guide to Benefits for assistance as you work through the difficulty and pain of losing a loved one who was serving in the military.
  • Access additional resources for survivor and casualty assistance. If your military service member dies because of an injury or illness incurred or aggravated during their service, survivors may be entitled to benefits. Some benefits are automatic, but there are others, such as Social Security Survivors Benefits and Survivor Benefit Plan that your family must apply for.

If you are a survivor seeking assistance, contact your casualty assistance officer or get connected with a long-term care manager to learn more about the long-term case management program.

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