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Byline: Steven Brill; T. Trent Gegax; Mary Carmichael; Michael E. Ryan; Lorraine Ali; Katherine Stroup

For 9-11 Families, More Money on the Way

This week Kenneth Feinberg, who runs the fund set up by Congress to compensate the next of kin of those killed in the September 11 attacks, will do something unusual for a public official. He'll admit he didn't get it exactly right when he drafted the regulations last December that will govern who gets what. And he'll demonstrate that what in Washington is usually a fictional opportunity for the public to have "input" into "draft" regulations before they become final was in this case real. He'll announce significant modifications in the draft rules following a series of boisterous meetings with groups of September 11 victims from New York to Boston to California.

That's not to say he's been a soothing, sensitive figure. In auditoriums and hotel ballrooms around the country where widows, parents, brothers and sisters have grilled him, he's often come off as pompous and arrogant. More accustomed to one-upping fellow lawyers than consoling widows, his turns of phrase, such as calling his fund "the only game in town," were not appreciated by those who don't see this as a game. But he did show up. And he did listen.

Among other adjustments, Feinberg, according to three people with whom he consulted last week, will raise the minimum award per family member from $50,000 to between $75,000 and $100,000 (most likely $100,000). So a family of four will get an extra $100,000 to $200,000. More important, Feinberg will sharply discount the value he assigns to Social Security and worker compensation payments due the survivors. The law requires Feinberg to deduct the value of these payments from his total awards--which he has said will average $1.6 million per family, and will now, with the increase in the base amount, average $1.7 million to $1.8 million. Many widows have been told by lawyers and financial advisers that under the originally drafted regulations, Feinberg could fix the value of these benefits as high as $1 million and deduct that from his award. Because the law requires that private life-insurance payouts also be deducted, they feared they'd end up with little or nothing. Feinberg will announce that Social Security and worker compensation benefits to surviving spouses are so speculative (they end if the surviving spouse dies or gets married), he won't count them at all. He'll count only the far more modest Social Security death benefits paid to children until they are 18. So the overall amount of his deductions will typically be hundreds of thousands of dollars less. That means almost everyone will now accept Feinberg's fund as an alternative to trying to sue the airlines or anyone else in civil court.

"That would do it for me," says Eileen Simon, a New Jersey widow who went to four meetings with Feinberg and complained about the onerous benefits deductions. Simon calculates that Feinberg's changes could yield her family an additional $700,000 to $800,000. "I was counting on my government to do the right thing, and it looks like they might," she says. Feinberg wouldn't comment on specifics last week, but he did say, "I just plain didn't understand the Social Security or workmen's comp issues the way I should have until I talked to the families. And as a result I am making adjustments."

Everyone struggling with the unprecedented problems that the September 11 attacks left behind should see Feinberg's flexibility and openness as he makes his way through uncharted waters for what it is: it's not a sign of weakness. Rather, it's a self-assured acknowledgment that we really are all in this together.

Steven Brill

OLYMPICS: SECURITY WRAP-UP Despite fears, the few security problems at the Olympics were more Keystone Cops than Al Qaeda. The day of the closing ceremonies, Secret Service agents in a skateboard shop left behind their plans for protecting Vice President Cheney. …

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