Oregon widow denied VA death benefits

96-year-old Katherine Preece and her late husband Harry
96-year-old Katherine Preece and her late husband Harry

VANCOUVER, WA. (KPTV/CNN) — The focus has been on veterans not getting the health care they earned and deserve.

But KPTV found more problems. Not with veterans, but their elderly widows.

Here is a story on one Oregon widow was not going to get benefits she deserved until the KPTV investigators stepped in.

96-year-old Katherine Preece showed KPTV a photo dating back to the 1940s.

Her late husband, Harry, served in both the U.S. Navy and the U.S Coast Guard.

He died in 2002.

For 96, Katherine’s in good health. But she is 96 and she is not as physically or mentally fit as she once was.

“Was he in World War II? Harry? God, I don’t know you got me,” Katherine said.

For the last 8 years, Katherine has lived at the Glenwood Assisted Senior Living in Vancouver.

But her money is running out.

Her granddaughter, Kristen Preece, discovered that Kathryn might qualify for a little-known VA program called survivor benefits based on her late husband’s military service.

It took Kristen four months to gather the documents the VA requires — financial and medical information, marriage certificate, records of Harry’s service, his discharge, and his death.

After Kristen sent all that to the VA, she was told it takes an average of 8 months to process the application. 8 months is a long time to wait when you’re 96 years old.

In Katherine’s case, it actually took almost ten months. Then she was denied the benefits. The VA said it needed proof Katherine had obtained a divorce from a first husband she’d married briefly when she was 17 — almost 80 years ago.

At 96, Katherine barely remembers that marriage.

Based on Katherine’s memory, this is all Kristen could tell the VA about that early divorce: “I can tell them it was in Southern California in the early 40s,” Kristen said.

Kristen finally convinced a supervisor the actual divorce decree document wasn’t necessary as long as Katherine signed a statement saying she didn’t know of any reason she hadn’t been free to marry her second husband Harry Preece.

Did the VA really think Katherine was possibly a bigamist?

“Then her marriage to my grandfather wouldn’t be legal and then they don’t have to pay her,” Kristen said.

Or perhaps, Kristen wonders, VA officials could be playing a grim waiting game.

“I mean she’s 96 and they can see that on paper. So if they kind of drag their feet then they don’t have to deal with it at all,” Kristen said.

And even with that statement on the desk of a VA official, Kristen says the VA told her it would take another 8 months to process her grandmother’s application because they would have to start the process all over again.

“It’s frustrating and upsetting. We’re kind of on the edge waiting for the response. Like I said she’s running out of money to stay here. So then we have to have a backup plan. But I’m sure you can imagine at 96 moving someone,” Kristen said.

KPTV contacted the VA after one week of our repeated contacts. The VA changed its mind and Kristin’s just received word her grandma will get those benefits. No more waiting.

“There’s no way it’s a coincidence after we waited this long for answers for approval for everything to be resolved,” Kristen said.

It was down to the wire. “This would have been her last month that she technically could have stayed here.” Kristen said.

But think of all those elderly widows who don’t have a caring and persevering granddaughter like Katherine has. They may not have the wherewithal to navigate their way through long involved instructions and a maze of red tape.

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