US Military Discharges—Sole Surviving Son or Daughter

Misperceptions abound about how this rule is applied

Senior woman in apron smiling at son in military uniform, side view
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Contrary to popular belief, "only sons," "the last son to carry the family name," and "sole surviving sons" must register for the draft, they can be drafted, and they can serve in combat. However, they may be entitled to a peacetime deferment if there is a military death in the immediate family.

Surviving Child Specifics

Keep in mind that the survivor provisions are directly related to service-connected deaths. The mere fact that a man is the only child or only son does not qualify him for consideration; he must be the survivor of one who died as a result of military service.

The law provides a peacetime exemption for anyone whose parent or sibling was killed in action, died in the line of duty, or died later as a result of disease or injury incurred in the line of duty while serving in the armed forces of the United States.

Also included are those whose parent or sibling is in a captured or missing status as a result of service in the armed forces. This is known as the "surviving son or brother" provision. A man does not have to be the only surviving son in order to qualify; if there are four sons in a family and one dies in the line of duty, the remaining three would qualify for surviving son or brother status.

The surviving son or brother provision is applicable only in peacetime. It does not apply in time of war or national emergency declared by the Congress.

Military Discharges Under the Surviving Child Rule

In addition to peacetime draft deferment, the Department of Defense authorizes discharges for any son or daughter in a family in which the father or mother or one or more sons or daughters:

  • Have been killed in action or have died when serving in the U.S. Armed Forces from wounds, accident, or disease
  • Are in a captured or missing-in-action status
  • Have a permanent 100 percent service-related disability (including 100 percent mental disability), as determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs or one of the military services, and are not gainfully employed because of the disability

This voluntary separation does not apply during times of war or national emergency declared by Congress. It also does not apply to commissioned officers or warrant officers unless they were involuntarily drafted into the Armed Forces.

Additionally, a service member who enlists, reenlists, or voluntarily extends his or her active-duty period after having been notified of the family casualty on which the surviving status is based shall be considered as having waived his or her rights for separation as a surviving son or daughter.

A member who has waived the right to a separation as a surviving son or daughter may request reinstatement of that status at any time.

Assignment Limitations of Surviving Son or Daughter

In addition to being able to request a discharge, sole surviving sons and daughters are exempt from involuntary deployment or assignment to combat areas. However, for the assignment limitation program, there are a couple of differences. First of all, it applies to commissioned and warrant officers, as well as enlistment members.

The biggest difference, however, is that under the discharge provisions, an enlisted member doesn't have to be the "sole" surviving son or daughter in order to apply for a discharge. Under the assignment policy, however, one must be the "sole surviving son or daughter."

Sole surviving sons or daughters, upon request (or request from members' immediate family) for noncombat duty, may not be assigned to duties normally involving actual combat or to duty where the member might be subjected to hostile fire. In the Air Force, the deferment request must come from the member, not the immediate family.

Members may waive entitlement to the assignment limitation, whether entitlement was based on the member's own application or the request of the member's immediate family.

Waiving Sole Surviving Son Status

Unless entitlement is waived, "sole survivor" military members will not be assigned to:

  • Combat and hostile fire areas
  • Duties that require travel within the limits of the hostile fire zone
  • A command where combat conditions exist unless the area is not physically located within the geographical limits of the hostile fire zone

The requirement that death or disability be a direct result of the hazards of service does not require that the family member's death or disability occur in combat or during assignment to a designated hostile fire or imminent danger area but does require that death is determined as in the line of duty. 

Members who have waived sole surviving son or daughter status may request reinstatement of that status at any time. If reinstatement is approved, the member will be removed promptly from the hostile fire area or to a safe haven within the combat zone until reassignment.