MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --
An American expression that comes to mind at tax time is in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.
As the country begins reporting its 2017 taxes, the collective mind is focused on this task.
Neither subject is pleasant to think about, but the statement is true. People plan for taxes, but people in their 20s, and often 30s and 40s, don’t usually think about the end of life or plan for it.
But individuals spending their career with the Air Force who have an eye on retirement should be thinking about it, said Victoria “Vicki” Plank, 341st Missile Wing casualty assistance representative and survivor benefit plan director.
The cost and pay-off of survivor benefits for families
Plank said she recommends that everyone retiring be ready to pay for and elect survivor benefits upon retirement if they have a family.
Eligible retirees are the people who “put in their years” or retire for medical reasons.
“In the event of your passing away, survivors receive 55 percent of your retirement pay if you have paid into the plan,” Plank said. Spouses benefit for life, and children can receive benefits up to the age of 18, or if the child is going to school, the plan pays until the child 22 years old.
Her worst experience, she said, is to sit across the desk from a senior person who has just lost their spouse and explain how they didn’t elect the survivor benefit plan at retirement.
“They ask, ‘What am I going to do? All I’m left with is social security.’ When you’re young, it’s hard to look into a crystal ball and imagine what life is like 40 years from now, but it’s important to,” said Plank.
“Many people are reluctant to pay for survivor benefits,” she said. “There are 30 years of monthly payments at 6.5 percent of retirement pay.”
The math and the basics
“Most retirees on the enlisted side are master sergeants who serve anywhere from 20-24 years with retirement pay on average at about $2,000,” Plank said. “With a spouse and child, the monthly premium for the plan or cost of that is about $125 a month.”
In the event of death, if enrolled in the plan, the annuity at this rate of retirement pay is about $1,050 for the remainder of the spouse’s life.
If a former active-duty retiree passes away before paying the full 30 years, survivor benefits will start to pay even if the death occurs only a few months after starting to pay into the program, she said.
If there is no spouse, but perhaps three children under the age of 18, a guardian will provide proof of guardianship. There will be a bank account opened in each child's name and the annuity split three ways, she said.
“If you're married and your spouse passes away, but then you remarry, you would suspend the benefit program, and then come into my office with your marriage certificate and we can restart the program without losing any of what you’ve already paid into it,” she said.
The same principle applies to divorce, she said.
Not officially married? In some states, common-law marriage can define survivor benefits if a retired loved one has passed, Plank said, so people should be aware of their state’s laws.
Military members at Malmstrom will be called to Plank’s office for a face-to-face brief on the program six months before retirement, she said.
“If you separate before your retirement or if it’s not medical retirement, you are not eligible for this program,” she said.
“You don’t have to meet a physical. It just automatically starts if you elect it,” she said.
Veterans and their families are important
As the dual-hatted casualty assistance representative, Plank said her most important responsibility is the empathetic guidance to the family of an active-duty member who has been lost and see that family through every detail of the benefits process.
At Malmstrom, Plank said the majority of her casualty assistance is provided to retirees. In her role of director, her work is focused on bringing benefits to the local Air Force community and the local military community at large.
“My concept of this position is to be the person who opens up the lines of communication,” she said. “It’s important to let retired folks know they are still important to the Department of Defense. I help all services, all veterans and their family really, that call my office.”
“My job is broad, and it isn’t just about casualty and death,” Plank said.
Her vision is to soon put together teams in the community, part retired and part active duty, to do local volunteerism, spreading the word about benefits and entitlements.
Plank’s office has information on Facebook found on the Malmstrom Airman & Family Readiness Center and the Malmstrom AFB Retiree Activities pages.
Plank said she does everything she can to help people with what they need or point them in the right direction because this is what veterans and their families deserve.
“I have clients who even though we are done with paperwork and business, we get so comfortable with each other, they still call to say hello,” she said.
For more information on the survivor benefit plan or casualty assistance, Plank can be reached at 731-2911.