Military spouses have a right to know whether their service member plans to opt out of Servicemembers Group Life Insurance coverage, or reduce life insurance coverage ― and officials should make sure that notification happens, lawmakers said.

It may require a change in law.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., relayed the story of a California Navy wife whose husband died in training. Neither her husband, nor anyone else, had notified her that he had declined SGLI coverage. Thus, she wouldn’t have been paid the insurance money, which is generally the maximum of $400,000.

While she was paid, because of public pressure, her case illustrates a more widespread problem, Hunter said during a hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s panel on disability assistance and memorial affairs.

The hearing focused on various life insurance policies, including SGLI and Veterans Group Life Insurance.

While the law already specifies that spouses have to be notified in writing if the service member declines or reduces coverage, Hunter noted that the same law states that if a good faith effort is made, and the spouse isn’t reached, “failure to notify doesn’t affect the validity” of the service member’s decision.

Because the life insurance program is administered by the Veterans Affairs Department, Hunter pressed a VA official to respond. Robert Reynolds, VA deputy undersecretary for disability assistance for the Veterans Benefits Administration, testified that he agreed that spouses should be notified.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., suggested that the law be changed so that the policy has to honored unless officials can demonstrate that a spouse actually received notification. It’s important to inform service members that they can’t just opt out of the insurance without letting the family know, she said, because “it’s irresponsible and unfair to the family who will bear the burden” if something happens.

“We need to continue to work on it and find a legislative fix, because clearly it’s an unacceptable situation,” she said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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