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Survivor Benefits: DOD and Workers' Compensation

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Survivor Benefits from the Department of Defense (DOD)

To be eligible for the death gratuity (which is in addition to VA benefits), the service member needs to have died while on active duty, in training, or traveling to or from service/training. The DOD offers a lump sum death gratuity of $100,000 which is paid to survivors or others identified by the service member prior to death. The service member may have also designated that certain people receive a portion of the death gratuity. If so, the death gratuity will be distributed according to the instructions given by the service member. The death gratuity is generally paid within 72 hours of the death of the service member.
Any pay earned by the Deceased since the last pay day will be paid to the designated beneficiaries or legal representative. Should no beneficiary or other instructions be indicated by the deceased, the pay will be distributed according to the following order of priority:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Legal Representative

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The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)

The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) is also provided to spouses of military members who die in active duty, active duty training, or retirement. After retirement, a service member pays premiums to ensure that the surviving spouse receives the benefit after death. Service members often use the SBP as part of their estate plan to provide for loved ones after they pass away. The plan provides payments that are equal to 55% of the Deceased’s retirement pay had they retired at 100% disability. The SBP annuity is reduced by the amount provided under the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program for veterans. Spouses can elect to receive “child only” SBP benefits and usually do so when the amount of the DIC exceeds the amount of the SBP. The payments continue as long as the spouse does not remarry before the age of 55. As with other benefits, if the spouse remarries but the marriage ends, he/she may reapply for SBP benefits.

Please Note: Unlike DIC funds, SBP funds are taxable. Also, if the survivor is already receiving DIC benefits, the SBP benefit will be reduced.

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The Bottom Line:

Many survivors of military service members are eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits, VA survivor benefits, and DOD survivor benefits at the same time. Whether or not this applies to your situation is determined by the circumstances of the Deceased’s death. Survivors of retired and active duty service members may receive different benefits, as well as survivors of service members who suffered an accidental death. Other circumstances can affect the survivor benefits, so it’s important to call the VA (1-800-827-1000) to understand which benefits may apply to you. Additional assistance can be given by your casualty assistance officer, if one has been assigned.

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Federal Workers’ Compensation Benefits

The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) provides benefits to survivors of federal employees who die from an “injury sustained in the performance of duty” through a monthly death benefit that is a percentage of the Deceased’s monthly pay, and is based on their role in the Deceased’s life. Please Note: It is important to understand that at no time can survivors receive more than 75% of the Deceased’s monthly pay. In many instances the benefit will be below the 75% threshold.

The benefits are allocated as follows:

  • Widows and widowers with no children receive 50%
  • Widows and widowers with children get 45% with an additional 15% for each child, up to a total of 75%. (This means that up to two children can receive 15% without exceeding the benefit limit; if there are more than two children the maximum benefit is the same.)
  • When there is no widow or widower, children receive 40% for the first child and 15% for each additional child providing for 3 children total without exceeding the maximum benefit. (The children are to share the benefit equally.)
  • The parents of the Deceased receive a benefit if there is no widow/widower and no children. The amount varies based upon their dependence on the Deceased:
  • A parent who was “wholly dependent” upon the Deceased at the time of death receives 25% if the other parent was not dependent in any way.
  • If both parents were “wholly dependent,” they receive 20% each for a total of 40%.
  • If one or both parents were partially dependent on the Deceased, an amount is determined by the Secretary of Labor.
  • When there is no widow/widower, children or dependent parents, the brothers/sisters, grandparents and grandchildren are eligible for the benefit. Benefits are as follows: 
    • If one was “wholly dependent” on the Deceased, 20% 
    • If more than one was “wholly dependent,” 30% to share 
    • If no one is “wholly dependent” but one or more is partly dependent, 10% to be shared

These benefits will be paid from the Deceased’s time of death until:

  • The widow/widower remarries before age 55 or dies.
  • The children, brother, sister or grandchildren marry, become 18, die or if over 18 and “incapable of self-support.”
  • A parent or grandparent dies, marries or is no longer dependent.
  • Similarly, the death benefit to children, brothers, sisters or grandchildren will be continued if over 18 and a full-time student and will continue until they are no longer a student or they marry.
  • If someone no longer meets the requirements for compensation, the remaining dependents will receive the share they would have received had they been the only individuals entitled at the time of death. (For example, if the widow or widower dies, but there are children, those children will then be entitled to 40% for the first child and 15% for additional children up to 75% as if there was no widow/widower at the time of death.)

Please Note:  These restrictions are similar to those in the federal retirement programs.

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Additional Provisions:

If there are “two or more classes of individuals” who are entitled to benefits, but receiving them would somehow cause an “injustice,” the law states that the Secretary of Labor has discretion to adjust the allotment to correct the injustice. The law reiterates that no compensation can exceed 75% of the Deceased’s monthly pay. It also allows the personal representative of the Deceased’s estate to receive $200 to help cover the cost of “termination of the Deceased’s status as an employee of the United States.”

In section 8134, FECA also provides funeral benefits for those who have died while serving the government. FECA offers funeral and burial expenses up to $800. The US government will also pay to embalm and transport the deceased if their home is in the United States and they die due to an injury away from home, their official station or outside the U.S. Also, if the Deceased was away from home to “receive medical or other services, appliances, services or examination” they are eligible for the burial and funeral benefit.

Please Note: The key provision in this section is that the family must request the return of the Deceased’s body. If the family does not request return of the body, the Secretary of Labor is allowed to make arrangements and deduct the costs from the Employee’s Compensation Fund.
In January 2008, an amendment to FECA was added that provides a death benefit to those federal employees whose “injuries incurred in connection with the employee’s service with an Armed Force in a contingency operation.” This provides a payment of up to $100,000 to the survivors. For this specific amendment, the Deceased could choose to change the order of precedence regarding who receives the payment and to allocate up to half of the payment to any person. That person does not have to be related to the Deceased. The government recommends that anytime an employee is asked to assist the military in a contingency operation, they are informed of this death benefit and given the necessary forms to designate beneficiaries. If you think the circumstances of the Deceased’s death may have been covered by this benefit, contact the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) for more information (1-866-4-USA-DOL).

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Black Lung Benefits

Survivors of coal miners (“surviving dependents, including surviving spouses, orphaned children and totally dependent parents, brothers and sisters”) can apply for death benefits if the Deceased died from pneumoconiosis. Since the law was changed in 1982, if the Deceased did not file a claim for benefits before death, the survivors must prove that the Deceased’s death was caused by pneumoconiosis. A successful claim results in monthly benefits paid to the survivor(s) of the Deceased. For more information contact the OWCP at 1-866-4-USA-DOL.

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Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act

The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act provides a death benefit for survivors of deceased family members who died as a result of “an injury or an employment-related occupational disease occurring on the navigable waters of the United States, or in adjoining shoreside areas.” For eligible survivors, funeral expenses up to $3,000 are paid. The surviving spouse is entitled to 50% of the Deceased’s average weekly wage for life or until remarriage. Awards to underage survivors such as children, dependent siblings and grandchildren end when they turn 18, but can continue if one of the dependents is unable to support themselves.

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The Bottom Line

Many workers who are injured, especially those who sustain minor injuries while working, fail to report claims to Workers’ Compensation programs. This is unfortunate because federal and state programs provide comprehensive benefits to ensure that an affected worker’s family does not suffer hardship as a result of their injuries and to help ensure that employers comply with labor laws. Workers’ Compensation programs provide workers with important benefits and any worker who is injured as a result of their employment should file a claim.

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How to Find out More Information about Survivor Benefits

  • The United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA): 1-800-827-1000 www.va.gov

  • Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWP): 1-866-4-USA-DOL  www.dol.gov

  • Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS): 1-800-321-1080 www.dfas.mil

  • Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA): 1-800-321-1080  www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/

  • Social Security Administration: 1-800-772-1213 www.ssa.gov

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