Veterans and their families may be eligible to receive unclaimed funds totaling at about $33 million, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans' advocacy groups say many veterans' families have no idea the money is there.
"A life insurance policy could make a huge difference for the veteran's family, but only if they know who to contact and how to claim it," said Peg Bergeron, executive director of the American Military Retirees Association.
Unclaimed life-insurance policy payments, dividend checks and refunds -- about $33 million in all -- have accumulated since the beginning of the Veterans Affairs insurance programs in 1917. The unclaimed payments can go up to $4,000 but are typically between $5 and $750, according to Thomas Lastowka, director for insurance for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Lastowka said the amount is dependent on the premium that the solider chose to pay in the original policy.
"Up until the 1950s or 60s, the standard large insurance policy was $10,000," said Lastowka. "Back in 1917, the standard policy written was between $1 and $1,500. Historically, $10,000 was a lot of insurance for people to have."
Lastowka cautioned that many families would not find they are eligible for funds.
"For the vast majority of people who use it, they don't find any accounts related to them," Lastowka said.
About 25 million people have enrolled in the insurance programs since World War I, according to Lastowka. The bulk of the unclaimed funds date from World War II, when about 22 million people enrolled.
He urged veterans' families to check if they are eligible through the Veterans Affairs website: https://insurance.va.gov/liability/ufsearch.htm. Family members should have a veteran's name, date of birth, death and, if possible, the insurance policy number.
Lastowka said the website, which the department launched seven years ago, is the fastest method to determine if a family member is eligible for a payment. There is also a toll-free phone number (1-800-669-8477).
Veterans' groups say families are at a disadvantage in trying to receive information about their insurance policy payouts.
"There's an enormous waiting time of getting things approved. I think there's so much red tape that a number of these veterans have to go through," said Raphael Works, chairman and founder of the Veterans Association of America. "These veterans and their families should be getting the reciprocity they rightfully deserve."
The $33 million in unclaimed funds is unrelated to the insurance programs for soldiers in active duty, the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance and Veterans Group Life Insurance programs. In 2005, Congress permanently raised the maximum coverage for these insurance programs from $250,000 to $400,000. A group of family members under the organization, Veterans and Military Families for Progress, filed a complaint last year against Prudential Insurance Company for abuses related to the distribution of those programs.
Matt Cary, executive director of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, said although it is challenging to keep track of veterans' families who have changed addresses, the military is efficient at keeping track of the men and women in active service.
"The military keeps good records of their own personnel," said Cary, a Vietnam War veteran. "So if anybody in the military has the opportunity to get these life insurance policies, the money comes out of their paycheck to pay the premium on this. It's part of joining."
Lastowka said extending information about the unclaimed funds is an important effort of the Department of Veteran Affairs. He said the V.A. works with other agencies, including the State Department and National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, to spread the word about the unclaimed funds.
"There's always outreach to provide retroactive payments to people. Part of what we do at the V.A. is so people are aware of the benefits they're entitled to," Lastowka said.
Peg Bergeron said states, not just the Department of Veteran Affairs, have a role in helping notify families of unclaimed benefits. State treasurers and other agencies hold some $32.877 billion in unclaimed funds for 117 million accounts, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.
"Since VA funds are not included on state websites listing unclaimed funds, it might be helpful if those sites contained advice for veterans and surviving family members about how to check for unclaimed VA funds," Bergeron said.
Bergeron said her organization and other veteran groups try to inform their members of the many issues related to veterans' benefits and funds. She advises veterans and military retirees using the VA consistently to update their contact information with the agency.
"And they should make certain that their spouses and dependents are aware of what they are entitled to when the veteran passes away," Bergeron said.