“Spousal consent” seen as one step too far

By Tom Philpott: Military Digest

Rachelle Arroyave was 27, pregnant and caring for two young daughters at Camp Pendleton, Calif., when notified last April 15 that her husband, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jimmy Arroyave, had been killed in a truck accident in Iraq.  She got more bad news the following day.
Six weeks before his death, Jimmy had re-designated his mother, who is not close to Rachelle or the children, as primary beneficiary of his $250,000 Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) policy.
“I was shocked,” Rachelle said. She, Jimmy and their daughters had lived comfortably, she said, but also “from paycheck to paycheck.’’ Suddenly she was a single mom with two small children, a third on the way, and no life insurance to help buy a home or raise the children.
Before Jimmy left for his second tour in Iraq last March, he and Rachelle had updated their wills, designating each other as primary beneficiary. Jimmy, an only child himself, didn’t tell Rachelle about his SGLI designation. If he had, Rachelle said, she could have made other financial plans, perhaps purchased a separate life insurance policy.
“The reality is I’m not the only one this has happened to,’’ she said.
Rachelle told her story in a letter to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and believes it influenced his decision to include in S.77, his bill to enhance military death benefits, a “no surprises’’ requirement for SGLI. 
That provision would require married service members to get their spouse’s written consent to elect someone other than the spouse as beneficiary or to choose less than maximum SGLI coverage.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is to mark up the fiscal 2005 wartime emergency supplemental appropriations bill April 6, and will include military death benefit enhancements, most likely embracing Sessions bill, which he drafted with help from Defense Department officials.
The House, meanwhile, passed its own version of the supplemental (HR 1268) on March 16 and included death benefit gains that mirror most of Sessions’ bill, including the SGLI spousal consent requirement.
The other key death benefit changes voted by the House would:
• Raise the $12,000 lump-sum military death gratuity to $100,000 and apply it retroactively to deaths incurred since Oct. 7, 2001, as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Rachelle and other surviving spouses would receive this additional $88,000.
• Raise the SGLI maximum from $250,000 to $400,000. This increase also would be paid retroactively to SGLI recipients since Oct. 7, 2001, for active duty deaths in “performance of duty,’’ leaving the Defense Department to interpret the full meaning of those words. Presumably, at least half of SLGI beneficiaries since the war began in Afghanistan, including Rachelle’s mother-in-law, would get the additional $150,000.
But as the House neared a final vote on the bill, members and staff of the Veteran Affairs Committee, joined by a few dozen military associations, warned that the SGLI spousal consent requirement was excessive. They pressed instead for a replacement amendment to require only spousal “notification’’ when a married member designates someone else for SGLI.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., noted that not all members have the same types of families or spousal relationships. Some might prefer to leave their insurance to children from a first marriage rather than a current spouse. Or a member married to a spouse with a drug problem, she said, might want to make the children beneficiaries to ensure that the money goes for their schooling, clothes and health care rather to the spouse’s cocaine addiction.
Berkley and Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., VA committee chairman, presented colleagues with letters from The Military Coalition, a consortium of more than two dozen associations, and from the Military Officers Association of American, explaining how those groups had reconsidered earlier support for Sessions’ spousal consent provision.
Buyer argued that spousal consent violates “the principles of contractual law and the nature of life insurance.’’ Requiring it, he advised colleagues, would turn SGLI into an involuntary plan for married members while keeping it a voluntary program for single members.
No floor amendment was allowed, however. The House passed the supplemental with the spousal consent requirement for SGLI.
Opponents hope to persuade senators to accept spouse notification as replacement language when the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its version of the wartime supplemental bill after the Easter recess.
Meanwhile, Rachelle and her children, including an infant son, received some unexpected support after moving back to her parents’ home in Woodland, Calif. The city mayor, Matt Rexroad, who also served in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist, launched a fundraiser for Rachelle’s three children and Jimmy’s first daughter from an earlier relationship. More than $70,000 has been raised so far. Rachelle will use her children’s share toward purchase of a home in which each child will have a financial interest.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com