May 19, 2020

Benefits for Survivors and Dependents

In the post-9/11 era, a “sea of goodwill” made up of organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors has formed to support veterans, service members, their families, and survivors. While services from nonprofit organizations and federal agencies are widely known, benefits offered by states to veterans are less so. State-level benefits, though extensive, vary widely and are often difficult to identify. To fill that gap, CNAS developed a State Veteran Benefit Finder with easily searchable information about 1,814 identified benefits. This tool allows users to filter state-level veteran benefits by type of benefit, beneficiary, and state to identify benefits for which they may be eligible, providing a unique and invaluable reference. The accompanying report, “From Sea to Shining Sea: State-Level Benefits for Veterans,” offers analysis of trends in state-level benefits and includes recommendations for an array of key stakeholders, from veterans to those who serve them, across domains. A series of follow-on briefs provides deeper dives into specific topics.

Survivor Benefits

Honoring the sacrifices service members make in the line of duty is a priority for every state, and it is equally important to ensure the surviving families of those missing or killed in action receive the support they need. These survivors face a unique and often difficult set of challenges, and many states offer specific benefits to assist them. Like all state-level benefits, however, certain conditions and criteria must be met in order to qualify. Eligibility conditions often are tied to the active-duty status of the veteran and whether their death was service related.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia offer benefits for survivors, with a total of 235 specific state-level benefits available nationwide. Of these 235 state-level benefits, 48 deal with education, making it the largest benefit category for survivors. Death and memorial benefits rank second with 45, followed by 41 available tax benefits, 27 state government service benefits, 24 health and housing benefits, 20 employment benefits, 18 business and financial benefits, 9 legal benefits, and 3 recreation benefits.


Education is the largest benefit category for survivors, with 40 states offering some form of education benefit for higher education, building on the federal precedent set by the G.I. Bill. In 34 of these states, survivors are eligible to receive tuition assistance at community and public colleges, ranging from fee waivers in California to full-tuition coverage in Maine. Several states also offer in-state tuition for survivors regardless of their residency status. Some conditions may be placed on access to education benefits; for example, California specifies qualifying dependents must be between 14 and 27 years old and that unmarried surviving spouses are eligible with no age restrictions.

Death & Memorial

Death and memorial state-level benefits are likely the first benefits survivors seek, so it makes sense this would be some of the most available to survivors. Forty-five death and memorial benefits are available to survivors across 40 states. These benefits largely address burial services and cost and range in coverage from South Dakota’s $100 burial allowance to Virginia’s 100 percent coverage of funeral and burial costs for service members and qualifying family members in a state veterans cemetery.


The third largest benefit category specifically for survivors is tax benefits, with 41 benefits available across 32 states. The majority of state-level tax benefits pertain to property taxes, with tax exemptions ranging from $1,500 in Connecticut for surviving spouses to $300,000 in Minnesota available to surviving spouses and spouses of disabled veterans. Fifteen states exempt surviving spouses from having to pay property taxes under specific circumstances. For example, Maryland exempts surviving spouses of active-duty military personnel who died in the line of duty from paying property tax. Four states exempt survivors from certain income taxes, typically relating to military retirement pay and Survivor Benefit Plan income.

Recreation & State Government Services

Three states offer recreation benefits, all of which provide either free or discounted access to state parks, museums, or hunting and fishing licenses. Of the 27 state government services benefits listed, all but one applies toward special license plate designators or discounted fees. North Dakota has a Tragedy Assistance Program which provides emergency relief services for the families of fallen service members.

Health & Housing

Twenty-four health and housing benefits across 14 states are available for survivors. The majority of the housing benefits are extensions of veteran’s homes benefits, which pass on to surviving spouses. Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, and Wisconsin offer veteran housing benefits to surviving Gold Star parents. Most states have priority tiers for veterans’ housing applications, with veterans taking first priority, followed by surviving spouses and Gold Star parents. Iowa, Nevada, and Texas offer benefits to help surviving spouses seek or maintain homeownership through competitive grants or loans, while Alabama provides special legal protections against foreclosure for the surviving spouses and estates of service members who die while on active military duty overseas.


Eighteen states and the District of Columbia extend veterans preference hiring in civil service positions for surviving spouses. Many of these employment benefits for surviving spouses are tied to what their spouse qualified for: if the deceased service member was eligible for a ten-point veteran hiring preference for civil service employment then their surviving spouse is eligible for the same ten-point hiring preference. Some states limit extending veterans preference to unmarried widows or widowers. Other states offer expanded employment benefits to surviving spouses; Texas, for example, offers career coaching and guidance on top of veterans preference hiring.

Business & Financial

Eleven states offer emergency financial assistance for survivors. Benefits vary widely: New York’s Gold Star Parent Annuity Program offers $500 annually per parent while Maryland’s Department of Public Safety Correctional Services Survivor Benefit offers a one-time $125,000 payment to the surviving spouse of a Maryland service member killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nearly all of the state-level financial benefits are restricted to service members who were killed on or after September 11, 2001, while on active-duty status. Illinois further specifies that benefits are limited to the survivors of military personnel killed in action by terrorist acts or hostile activities while serving in an active wartime campaign. Four states offer benefits for occupational licensing, such as Maryland’s Expediated Professional Licensing program, which helps survivors acquire professional credentials and expedites licensing procedures.

Legal Services

Eight states offer various forms of legal benefits to survivors. Of these states, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota offer free copies of vital records for surviving spouses. Delaware, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, and Virginia offer family support services for survivors to assist with legal services ranging from free notaries to all-encompassing legal guidance.


States have played an important role in the post 9/11 era “sea of goodwill” for veterans. However, much more can be done to ensure surviving families of veterans have the resources and support they need. Of the 1,814 identified benefits listed on the CNAS State Veteran Benefit Finder only 235 are specifically designated for the surviving families of deceased service members. This gap in survivor benefits could be filled by extending benefits currently available to service members to cover their surviving families as well. Although most state-level benefits for survivors list their eligibility requirements, it is important to verify with the specific state agency and program as eligibility criteria or coverage may change.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Veteran Community" commentary series.

Military, Veterans & Society

Supporting the Veteran Community

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