NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) – To see certified financial planner John Mason talk about the military survivor benefit, you might think you’re in a casino. He said he doesn’t want to see military families leave money on the table.

He uses stacks of poker chips to make his point.

“How many of these chips would you like to keep,” Mason asks, as he explains to military retirees, or those approaching retirement, the Survivor Benefit Plan.

Military pensions can vary on a wide range. Mason uses $100,000 as a round figure, with a hypothetical VA benefit worth $20,000. If you decline the survivor benefit, he explains what happens to your spouse after you die.

“The $100,000 goes away, the $20,000 goes away, and the rules with Social Security mean you get to keep (only) the higher of the two.”

The annual cost of is 6.5% of the pension, pre-tax, but with the survivor benefit, as much as 55% of the deceased retiree’s pension is preserved.

But this year, for a limited time, retirees get a mulligan – a second chance – if they’ve already declined the benefit. President Biden called for what’s known as open season, similar to open enrollment in the HR world. It runs out at the end of this year, and the last opportunity like this was 18 years ago.

“If you declined (the survivor benefit) at retirement, you can sign up for it now,” Mason said, and called it a rare opportunity for military retirees. “If you took it at retirement, you could drop it now. You’re probably not going to see this open season ever again in your lifetime.”

Mason said while the clock is ticking on open season that ends in December, Congress has yet to come up with the rules for people to opt-in if they had decided earlier to opt-out on the survivor benefit.

In the meantime, Mason said he wants to get survivor benefits on the radar of the thousands of military retirees in Hampton Roads, and he recommends they seek professional financial advice.