DoD Extends Eligibility for Benefits to Same-Sex Partners

On February 11, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta announced service members and retirees with same-sex partners will qualify for up to 24 new benefits. Changes to regulations and policies and implementation may be available by August 31, 2013 but no later than October 1, 2013. In a memo to the Service chiefs, Secretary Panetta said military leaders' work must "expand to changing our policies and practices to ensure fairness and equal treatment and to taking care of all of our service members and their families, to the extent allowable under law."

Two of the benefits are immediately available at the service members election: hospital visitation and unit based Family Readiness Group membership. Such membership for same-sex partners has not been uniform from Service to Service or even unit to unit. The National Military Family Association has long advocated for supporting those who support the service member and opening eligibility for Family Readiness Group membership across the board will make support resources more accessible. We invite you to read our website section Partners, Parents and Significant Others for background and information. We include information in that section about benefits that the service member can designate for any family member or, in some cases, someone who is not related who is in their support network. We also discuss the roles that some partners, parents and significant others assume in family readiness groups and other areas to support their service member.

Eligibility for expanded benefits will be extended to service members, their same-sex domestic partners, and where applicable, children of same-sex domestic partners. Service members and their partners have to sign a declaration attesting to the existence of a committed relationship. A dissolution form will also be available should the relationship end.

The expanded benefits with regulations under review include: issuing of ID cards, access to Commissary and Exchange, Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs, youth programs, child care, family center programs, joint duty assignments, and legal assistance. Housing, medical and dental care, and overseas command sponsorship for same-sex partners are not included in this round of policy changes. As Panetta noted, those benefits are restricted under the Defense of Marriage Act, commonly known as DOMA, which defines "spouse" as someone married to a person of the opposite sex. The Supreme Court is reviewing the law, and is expected to rule on it later this year.

The Secretary wrote, "In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the department to construe the words 'spouse' and 'marriage' without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits."

Rolling out a new benefit takes time, as regulations and instructions, systems and software all have to be updated, and workers will need to be trained in new processes. Retirees and their same-sex partners will be able to file the declaration once the new systems are in place. Officials estimate that 5,600 same-sex couples include an active-duty service member, 3,400 include a Reserve or National Guard member, and 8,000 include a retired military member. The cost of implementing the new benefits would be negligible according to officials.

(Sources: http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119260 and http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=15809)

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