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MI military widows fear court ruling could cost them their homes

The decision resulted in unexpected, large tax bills for hundreds of surviving spouses. A raft of bills making progress in Lansing could make the difference.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Months after an appeals court decision cost hundreds of Michigan military widows a tax benefit intended for veterans ruled 100-percent disabled and their surviving spouses.

Our reporting--together with the tireless efforts of a veteran advocacy group and state lawmakers--has a slate of bills geared to address the issue making progress in Lansing.

The case that prompted the change saw Sue Lockhart, a resident of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, challenging her local government over the denial letter she received in 2019.

“They took my husband when he was young and healthy,” Sue related. “When he came back home and had problems, they turned their back on him.”

When Petty Officer John Lockhart was shipped home in 1969, he began experiencing blackouts and having seizures tied to chemical exposure during his service. Including the one, Sue believes, that led to the fatal fall.

“We had to decide after four days, because the brain was still swelling after four days, whether to shut off life support or not,” she said. “That was an extremely, extremely difficult decision.”

64-years-old and her husband was gone – before his time -- another casualty of a war he fought as a much younger man.

The state tax break Lockhart earned on account of his deployment would linger for around eight more years as a survivor benefit.  

“My local board of review denied me because my husband did not live with me,” Sue noted. “Well, he didn't live with me, because I didn't file for the benefit until after he was deceased. We didn't know about it.”

The denial would mean years of litigation.

“Because of one overzealous small town board of review, it now has affected thousands of widows and widowers,” she said. “it's been a fight.”

Bonnie Graham’s benefits were also denied this year for the first time since she began collecting them.

The letter she received from her local tax office cited the Lockhart case.

“My husband and I were married 36 years when he passed,” she said. “He was in the service.”

Army vet Donald Graham had also come in contact with agent orange while on deployment in Vietnam.

The permanent disabilities and post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis that followed would carry into civilian life and the couple’s three decade marriage.  

“I was his caregiver, and advocate and nurse and everything that he needed,” Bonnie related.

Her husband would spend his golden years on dialysis, requiring full-time, round-the-clock care.

“I stayed in the residence we shared for six more years, then I moved into something that is more barrier-free for me,” she said.

Bonnie made the tough decision to downsize, tougher later, when she learned that because her late husband’s name wasn’t also on the deed…

“In March, I'm finding out I’m denied,” Bonnie related.

The exemption the couple had received for around ten years would be going away.

“And I didn't even know it coming. And it's huge,” she said.

Bonnie was expected to find the money somewhere.   

“And I won't be able to afford that,” she said. “So it could mean that I have to move again.”

Bonnie recently received her tax bill. It’s more than $5-thousand.

It’s upsetting, Sue noted, knowing the case that set the whole thing in motion bears the Lockhart name.

She’s part of a group of other surviving spouses, along with Bonnie, occupied writing letters, making calls and keeping their fingers crossed state lawmakers act urgently.

“They saw a lot of things that we can't even imagine,” Sue said. “it's an absolute slap in the face, to think that they gave so much. And now, so much is being taken from them or their surviving spouses.”

The raft of three bills were adopted in the Michigan Senate with broad bipartisan support in the last several months.

They’re due to be debated in committee in the coming weeks prior to entering the Michigan House of Representatives to be voted upon.

If signed into law, the measures would restore the benefit for thousands of Michiganders and provide retroactive relief.

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