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Veteran's spouse fighting for benefits after township denial

VFW, former lawmaker backs spouse's rights to denied benefits
Posted at 12:09 AM, Apr 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 00:09:58-04

The Backstory
Toni Veldman met her husband Steve when they were both working at a restaurant. Shortly beforehand, Steve had returned home from Vietnam after serving as a military policeman in the Air Force.

The two married in 1977, having two daughters together.

It was much later in life that Steve learned he had been exposed to Agent Orange as a boots-on-the-ground airman. He was told during a doctor's visit that he would be entitled to benefits, due to the fact that he had developed lung cancer. He also struggled with a heart condition, with either condition possibly being attributed to the Agent Orange exposure.

"My youngest daughter and I were with him. She just looked and said, 'Dad, if you’re too tired, it’s okay. We’ll take care of mom. You just go to heaven if you want to do that,'" said Toni. Then he just took his last breath and that was it. I think he just had to hear that everything was going to be alright in the homefront. And ever since then it has been me and my kids."

Filing for benefits
Steve filed for benefits in 2011, prior to his death. However, Toni says the system was backlogged at the time. His benefits were finally given after his death in 2013, taking two calendar years at the time when they were granted.

The documents from the VFW state that Steve would be awarded 100% disability, with the paperwork stating: "We note that your husband's death from respiratory insufficiency is considered to be due to (or as a consequence of) his service connected squamos cell lung cancer. Service connection for the cause of the veteran's death is granted since evidence shows that it was related to military service."

The VFW says the benefits should be retroactive, back to the date of filing in 2011. The documents state "the effective date is the date that we received your husband's claim."

After receiving the benefit notice from the VFW, Toni applied for property tax exemption, a benefit granted to veterans and their spouses if they are awarded full disability. At the time, she was living in Jamestown Township. She submitted the paperwork and received the exemption.

Moving to Georgetown Township

About four years later, Toni decided to move to a different home in Georgetown Township. The decision came because she wanted to purchase a large enough for her two daughters and their children to move in.

She had assumed that the benefits would again apply to her, as it is stated in the law that the benefits follow the person and are not directly tied to a property, even if the deceased veteran has not lived in the home. She was denied those denied. As she recalls, she was told that the law had changed and she no longer qualified.

Fast forward a few years, she met through a series of connections someone connected with the VFW who told her she was rightfully entitled to the benefits. She once again filed with the township and was denied with Georgetown Township. m

She also got in touch with the former state representative who proposed the bill, Dave Agema, who said the bill was written to help people exactly like Toni.

"What we are dealing with here is a tax assessor that doesn’t understand the law and thinks she is going to make law. That’s not her job. Neither is it her job to interpret the law. So that’s the law, she should abide by it," said Agema, who had proposed the bill that was later passed when his term was over.

Georgetown Township's Decision
The township has stated they have denied Toni's benefits because the benefits were granted after Steve's death. Township officials declined an interview but emailed and highlighted a portion of the bill's guidelines as outlined by the Michigan State Tax Commission. The highlighted portion reads, "An unremarried surviving spouse qualifies for the exemption by their spouse having been qualified prior to death."

The township told FOX 17 over the phone they would grant the benefit, if they believed she qualified.

Appealing the original decision
Toni, with the help of the VFW and Agema who originally drafted the bill, appealed the township's decision. Toni ultimately lost her case with the township's Board of Appeals.

"It does seem a bit callous, a little bit of hard-hearted when you think about what the guys go through, and what the price that they pay with their lives. It didn’t seem like it mattered to them," said Toni.

The decision comes despite showing officials a previous legal proceeding in Rose v. Portage dating back to 2018.

In that case, a widow was also denied benefits. The Michigan Tax Tribunal ultimately decided in favor of the widow saying, "If a disabled veteran who is otherwise eligible for the exemption under the section dies either before or after the exemption is granted, the exemption shall remain available to or shall continue for his or her unremarried surviving spouse."

The judgement for the case also reads in favor of the widow: "The statute is clear that the exemption is available to be sought and obtained by the surviving spouse after the disabled veteran dies."

Next steps
Toni's next steps are to take the her appeal to the Michigan Tax Tribunal, where the Rose v. Portage case was heard.