Marine 1st Lt. Matthew Davis was killed in the line of duty in 2014 when he was struck by a drunken driver while on base at Camp Pendleton, California, leaving behind his wife, Elizabeth, and their 10-year-old daughter, who was named as the beneficiary of his Survivor Benefit Plan.
For years, the family paid about $1,000 a year in taxes on that money. But this year, when Ms. Davis filed her daughter’s taxes for the first time after the Republican tax overhaul, that payment soared to $10,000.
The same thing happened to Sheryl Hood, whose husband was killed while on duty in Iraq 10 years ago and whose taxes for her two children’s survivor’s benefits soared from a combined $1,000 to $10,000.
Ms. Hood had to pull money out of her savings account to pay the bill, using all the funds she had set aside to take her son to tour college campuses.
“You’re essentially stealing from orphans of those who have defended our freedom,” Ms. Davis told The Washington Times. “You’re really just taking advantage of them from a tax perspective.”
The higher taxes are the result of a confluence of laws.
Families that lose someone in the line of duty often receive benefits from both the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program and from the Pentagon’s Military Survivor Benefit Plan, which service members fund.
In some cases, military families are better off designating their children rather than spouses as beneficiaries for survivor payouts.
The children pay taxes on the money, usually on their parents’ returns and at their parents’ rates.
But during the 2017 tax overhaul, Congress decided that too many wealthy parents in general were hiding estate money with their children, in effect lowering the taxes they paid.
The 2017 law applied the estate and trust tax rate to children’s inheritance income, which ended up snaring the payouts to Gold Star families.
Jessica Braden-Rodgers, whose husband was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, said her son James’ survivor benefits used to be taxed at a rate of about 12%. Under the new law, the rate is 37%.
If the tax provision is not fixed, the family likely will owe $9,000 next year. The family already is considering canceling a planned vacation to Disneyland in case they need money to pay James’ taxes.
“We can’t afford $450 a month paying taxes plus braces plus everything else. We can’t do that,” Ms. Braden-Rodgers told The Washington Times.
Mark Mazur, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said the tax overhaul should have undergone more analysis before it was finalized.
“It was an unintended consequence. Congress looked at this and thought they were making things simpler. True. But they didn’t think through all the implications,” Mr. Mazur said.
Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, said the number of people affected is likely in the “low thousands” and that it’s not a lot of money in the broader context of the federal budget.
But to the military families snared, it’s “a very costly surprise.”
“Simplifying the kiddie tax was one of a number of tax simplification priorities. All Congress needs to do here is take a surgical approach to ensure there aren’t unintended victims,” he said.
Gold Star mothers have pleaded with Congress for such a fix and have found receptive ears.
In May, the Senate unanimously passed the Gold Star Family Tax Relief Act, which would treat the children’s benefits as earned income rather than estate income, returning them to a lower tax rate.
A similar provision, introduced by Rep. Elaine G. Luria, a Virginia Democrat and military veteran, cleared the House as part of a broader retirement package. The vote on that bill was 417-3.
The sticking point is that neither chamber is agreeing to take up the other’s lead.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, objected to the House’s package for several reasons unrelated to the Gold Star families provision, particularly in regard to home-schoolers’ access to 529 savings accounts. Staffers for both senators confirmed that they support the Gold Star relief bill.
Senate and House aides argued that the other must act.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, defended the House’s approach.
“That bill gained overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, passing 417-3. The Senate ought to take up the SECURE Act without delay to provide relief for our Gold Star families, as well as the many workers who will benefit from new opportunities to save for retirement,” Mr. Hoyer told The Times in a statement.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Luria is working to get a bicameral solution off the ground.
“Both chambers of Congress are handling this important issue in different ways. My bipartisan bill has 168 cosponsors and has been endorsed by 20 veterans service organizations, so my office is doing everything possible to convince our colleagues that the House and Senate should reconcile as quickly as possible for Gold Star families,” she said in a statement.
A House Democratic aide told The Times of an effort to get a stand-alone bill on the House’s consensus calendar, which requires 290 sponsors and could speed passage.
Ms. Braden-Rodgers’ frustration lies with Senate Republicans, particularly Mr. McConnell. She said he is unnecessarily holding up a bill over a handful of objections.
“This is not a Republican or a Democratic [issue]. This is not a political issue. This is a Gold Star family issue,” she said. “Everyone wears the little flag pin on their lapels, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they say how much they support the troops. That’s all great. Where’s the support now?”
Mrs. Davis said she just wants a clean bill to pass.
“This shouldn’t be tucked away and hidden in another bill as a rider or an amendment,” she said.
She said she is starting to feel pessimistic about its chances and that the Gold Star families’ plight isn’t a huge priority for Congress.
Next year, she said, she will have to use money from her retirement and investment accounts to pay for her daughter’s taxes — and then pay a penalty for withdrawing her own funds early.
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