From The Mailbag: Survivor Benefit Plan

One of the many great benefits of military retirement is eligibility to sign up for the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP.)  Unfortunately, the program has lots of rules and regulations, and many retirees make poor decisions that can not be changed.

I retired from the Navy in October 1992, my wife and I did not elect for SBP. What happens if I die will she still get part of my retired pay and benefits, if not what can I do to ensure she will be covered?

I really liked this question because it asked how to proceed.  I’m pretty sure I hit all the possibilities in my reply.

If you did not elect the Survivor Benefits Plan when you retired, your retirement pay will end if you die.  Your wife will retain her benefits such as Tricare, commissary and exchange privileges.

If you are concerned about providing income for your wife if you were to die, there are several things to consider.  Much of this depends on your current age, the age at which you die, each of your respective working histories, your current assets and liabilities, and how much each of you have contributed to various retirement plans including the Thrift Savings Plans, Individual Retirement Accounts, and 401ks or 403bs through her work or work you had outside of the military.  There is far too much to consider for an email and you may want to consult with a financial counselor.

First, look into her Social Security benefits.  She may claim Social Security benefits based upon either her own work record or your work record.  Which will be better depends on how much each of you have worked during your lives.

Second, do either of you have any other type of retirement savings plans?  What sort of value do they have, how do they pay out, and what payments might you expect?

Third, you may want to consider a life insurance policy or annuity to provide additional income.  This will likely be expensive but will provide peace of mind.

Fourth, you may want to build up your assets to provide your wife with a nest egg in the event that you die.  Obviously you want to pay off any debts.

Fifth, keep your eyes open for a Survivor Benefit Plan open season.  An open season would allow you to enroll in the Survivor Benefit Plan by paying in all the premiums you have not paid since you retired.  It would be expensive but a good investment if you fear your wife will outlive you.  Open seasons do not happen often and usually only when there are substantial changes made to the SBP.  There have only been four open season in the history of the SBP and the last was several years ago.  In addition, open season elections are subject to a substantial delay in effective dates.  The last one was two years from the date of the election to the date of the effectiveness.  Please do not rely on the option of an open season occurring in the future.

I would suggest that you consult with a financial counselor to get more detailed information on your exact situation.

Hope that helps,


The Survivor Benefit Plan is absolutely one of those programs that you want to understand thoroughly before you are asked to choose.  That one decision can have ramifications for decades in the future.  There are a rare few cases in which I don’t recommend electing the coverage, but it is an excellent choice for 99% of the families who are leaving military service.  Please, please, learn about it before retirement.

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.
  • CCC

    It seems getting life insurance (Whole or Term) would be so much cheaper than SBP. Compare a policy’s cost (even Whole) to the cost of SBP and you may be surprised. I would think a life insurance policy would be an excellent choice for 99% of families who are leaving the military service.

    • That is true. We did not elect SBP so we ended up doing our homework and getting Term life which is affordable and we get it in one lump sum if something happens not paid out over time.

    • KateKashman

      CCC, I think it depends on your situation. SBP offers lifetime income with automatic adjustments to protect against inflation. You’re going to need a LOT of life insurance to match the coverage. SBP is not for everyone, but I think it is an excellent tool for many, if not most, military families.

  • EX-Wife

    My ex-husband retired from the Marine Corp Reserves. He turned 60 on October 1, 2012. I have an interest in his pension, but it will not be easy to collect. When should he receive his first retirement check Oct 1 or Nov 1? Will he be paid once a month or twice a month?

    • Typical ex wife looking for her cut. Get a job and stop expecting someone else to support you. I am thrilled we did not get SBP. If something happens she will not get a dime. She and her husband should not be living off of my husbands money!

      • EX-Wife

        You don’t know me, my ex, or the situation.

    • missy

      get a JOB! he’s your EX husband. why are you dependent on him

    • EX-Wife

      You don’t know the story. You shouldn’t judge.

  • EX-Wife

    you don’t either

  • cjrobb

    I retired from the Guard with 22 years service and at that time I was divorced so I named my children as beneficiaries. I remarried and reported my marriage to name my spouse but my records were destroyed in a flood. At age 60 I named my spouse again as beneficiary when I filled out my retirement papers to collect my pension. Now I’m told my children are too old to receive benefits if I die and my spouse is not eligible. What in the world?? What happens to the money I paid in? What recourse do I have? I have talked to other people who have run into this problem.

  • Johndavid

    Typical ex-wife looking for her cut!!….You don’t know me!!…Classic. So anyway, when I retired in 2007 my wife at the time had also retired a few years prior to me. So our agreement was that we would each decline the SBP, which we did. After all, if something happened to one of us, we would still be collecting our own retirement. Well after a few years we ended up getting divorced. I eventually remarried and now I am totally unable to add my new spouse to the SBP, due to the fact that I was married at the time of retirement and declined it. Well on the bright side I don’t have to give part of my retirement up to someone I am not with anymore. Not saying that would have happened anyway. Point being is that it is a very important decision. This website is very clear on the matter.