Photo courtesy of Jon Adler.

Photo courtesy of Jon Adler.

The Public Safety Officers' Benefits (PSOB) Act was signed into law in 1976, and it codified a means for the families of fallen law enforcement officers to file claims with the Department of Justice for financial assistance. Specifically, the documented beneficiary of any full-time sworn law enforcement officer who died in the line of duty is eligible to file a claim for a one-time payment from the federal government. Currently, this one-time payment is $328,612.

In 2003, the Hometown Heroes Survivors' Benefits Act amended the eligibility criteria of the PSOB Act to include heart attacks and strokes as covered causes of line of duty fatalities under certain circumstances. The PSOB will consider claims that demonstrate the heart attack or stroke was the result of a "non-routine stressful or strenuous activity or training" that occurred during duty hours or within 24 hours afterward. The PSOB has additional information on this posted at its Website.

Sometimes entire agencies are unaware of the PSOB. This happens because the persons with knowledge of the PSOB retire, and take the institutional knowledge with them. To prevent this and to provide for their officers, agencies should ensure that PSOB information is disseminated annually to all personnel.

To address the information void and other issues, the Department of Justice recently formed a working group of public safety organizations. In January, Director Denise O'Donnell of the Bureau of Justice Assistance and PSOB Director Hope Janke hosted the first working group meeting. O'Donnell emphasized three important objectives to improve the claims processing system:

  • Improve case processing transparency regarding the path every claim takes. The PSOB Website has been updated with the goal of increasing the percentage of claims filed online. This will help streamline the process.
  • Utilize outreach specialists that will contact agencies.
  • Stand up an efficient hotline that will be prepared to answer claimant and agency questions.

The working group plans to address the role of the Office of General Counsel and how to expedite claim acceptance and accelerate the processing of claims involving training fatalities. Fatalities that result from law enforcement officers intervening in violent situations during their personal time will also be examined.

At presstime, 11 officers had died in the line of duty in 2013. As we pull together to support the families of our fallen brothers and sisters, we need to ensure that they are aware of the PSOB and are being assisted with filing their claims. Great organizations such as the Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) are available to help the families with the process.

One emerging issue that requires immediate attention is the need for all law enforcement officers to file an annual declaration of beneficiaries with their agencies. Absent any declaration, the PSOB has published the following regarding the issuance of payments:

The PSOB program has a defined order in which claimants can file for the death benefit.

  • If an officer is survived by only a spouse, the spouse receives 100% of the death benefit.
  • If the officer is survived by a spouse and children, the spouse receives 50% of the benefit, with the remaining 50% split equally among the children.
  • If only children survive an officer, the entire death benefit is split equally amongst the eligible children.
  • If the officer is survived by neither a spouse nor children, the benefit is paid to the individual designated by the officer in his or her most recently executed life insurance policy on file with the employing agency.
  • If the officer is survived by neither a spouse nor children and does not have a life insurance policy, the benefit is equally distributed between the officer's surviving parents.

Every law enforcement officer has the right to declare a beneficiary, and should submit an annual sealed beneficiary affidavit to his or her agency. There have been circumstances where PSOB personnel were unable to make payment due to the ambiguity of undisclosed prospective beneficiaries. Since relationships sometimes change, an officer may need to update his or her beneficiary preferences. The starting point is ensuring all officers understand the PSOB. Please help disseminate information about the PSOB and the importance of updating the list of beneficiaries.