It took the help of a local lawmaker and an opinion from the attorney general’s office, but a Billings woman has been issued the disabled veteran plates she is entitled to by law.

In mid-September, 81-year-old Evelyn Pierce also got a refund check from the state of Montana for $450.21, two years worth of registrations fees for her two vehicles.

For her and her son, Tim Pierce, getting the matter resolved wasn’t about the money, though.

Tim Pierce says it was about bringing attention to a little-known benefit some Montana veterans’ spouses are entitled to because of a law enacted in 2003.

In 2011, the state Department of Motor Vehicles ruled that Evelyn Pierce wasn’t entitled to the plates because “applicable statutes are convoluted,” said John Barnes, communications director for the attorney general’s office.

‘I still miss him’

The issue arose after Evelyn’s husband, Billy Pierce, died in 1999. The father of four sons was a 100 percent- disabled veteran of the Korean War.

“We were married 46 and a half years when he died,” Evelyn said as she sat in her living room. “Yeah, you kind of get used to each other after that many years. I still miss him.”

After reaching the rank of staff sergeant, Billy was forced to retire in the mid-1970s because of lung disease and other health problems, the result of gas poisoning in a training accident, Evelyn said.

During the 20 years Billy served in the Army, the family moved almost every two years.

“I was primary caregiver for our sons, all four of them, for years because (Billy) was home for a little while and then he was gone again,” Evelyn said. “It’s really wearing not only on the veteran but on the family.”

Tim Pierce, a retired Army major, described his father as the “most honest” man he has ever known. “He’s one of the reasons I became an officer also.”

At the time of his death, Billy’s car was licensed with disabled veteran plates, which entitled him to waived registration fees.

When Evelyn went into a DMV office to renew the plates in 2000, they were confiscated and she was told — very rudely, Evelyn Pierce said — that she was no longer entitled to waived registration fees, which was true at the time.

Then, in 2003 the state legislature passed a law that states “the surviving spouse, if the spouse has not remarried, of a military service member or veteran who died of a service-connected injury or disability” is exempt from the registrations fees “for two motor vehicles that are not used for commercial purposes.”

Tim Pierce, who lives in Florida, didn’t find out about the plates being confiscated until 2011. When he did, he started doing some research and discovered the law, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2004.

“Initially, I thought it was just a matter of reading the law to the people that could process the benefit,” he said.

No benefit to ‘retain’

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While on vacation here in Montana, he went with his mother to the DMV office in Billings and tried to get his mother the benefits mentioned in the 2003 law and asked that she be refunded for the years she didn’t get the benefits.

A DMV worker licensed Evelyn’s vehicles accordingly, but said that the state office would have to process any refund, according to Tim.

When Tim inquired up the DMV chain of command about the refund, he was told not only that his mother did not qualify for a refund for the years since the 2003 law went into effect, but also that Evelyn wasn’t entitled to the benefits, period.

Brenda Nordlund, administrator of the Motor Vehicle Division of the Department of Justice, interpreted the 2003 statute in light of another law that states “the surviving spouse of an eligible veteran, if the spouse has not remarried, may retain the special license plates issued to the deceased veteran.”

Her reasoning was that because Evelyn didn’t currently have disabled veteran plates for the vehicles in question, “there was no benefit to be ‘retained’ and therefore Evelyn was ineligible for a reimbursement,” Barnes explained.

“The privileges associated with your father’s disabled veteran plate were personal to your father and while your mother could have opted for a veteran’s plate after his death, she would have been obliged to pay the registration fees for the vehicle,” Nordlund wrote in an email to Tim explaining her decision on the matter.

Nordlund concluded by apologizing and saying “I wish that I could change that, but I can’t.”

‘They deserve a little more’

Unsatisfied, Tim started reaching out to state representatives and veterans’ advocates, including state senator Roger Webb of Billings, who told Tim he was aware of the law and that he would help.

Webb said the matter is “pretty black and white” and that Pierce clearly was entitled to the benefit.

The senator discussed the matter with Nordlund and the question was turned over to Assistant Attorney General Peter Funk. In a March 11 opinion, he concluded there is “no doubt” that Evelyn is entitled to the benefits, but that she could only get a refund for the years since 2004 in which she had asked for the benefits and been denied.

“This situation was not the result of misfeasance or malfeasance on the part of the Motor Vehicle Division,” Barnes said. “There was a legitimate disagreement amongst agency officials about how to interpret two different state laws regarding special license plate eligibility.”

As of the end of October, there were 5,344 vehicles in Montana to which the disabled veteran registration fee exemption applies, he said.

But, Barnes continued, the record system that tracks the benefits doesn’t differentiate between qualifying veterans and qualifying spouses of deceased veterans.

That makes it unclear how many, if any, other people like Evelyn have taken advantage of the waived fees.

Whatever the case, Evelyn says she is happy to have the matter resolved. “And the truth is, it is peanuts in comparison to other challenges that veterans face.”

“And I think they deserve a little more,” she said. “After all, they’re protecting what we live for. That’s the way I feel.”

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City news reporter for the Billings Gazette