When Gloria DeSantes' husband died at age 52, the Detroit housewife and mother of 30 years expected his pension would provide for her family. After all, he had worked for the company 33 years. She never got a nickel because his plan provided benefits only to widows of employes who died after age 55. At age 50 Gloria DeSantes found herself virtually penniless, setoo old to start a career and too young for Social Security.
This is but one of the many tragic stories involving women and pensions. Pension laws were made with the married breadwinner in mind. They were not made for today's society where only 16 percent of the population fits the image of a father who goes to the office daily and a mother who stays home to run the house and kids. They were not made for the more than half of the adult female population that now works; they were not made for the divorced head of a household.
A few statistics collected by Karen Ferguson of the Pension Rights Center show the results: Only 2 percent of all widows receive a benefit from their husbands' pension plans; only 10 percent of all women retiring from private enterprise in 1970 received a pension; in 1975, those women who received private pensions averaged $1,887 a year while men averaged $2,725. One marriage in two ends in divorce, but former wives have no right to ex-husbands' private pensions; twice as many women as men working in the private sector have no pension coverage.
The pension reform act of 1974 did not broach the question of equality for women in retirement benefits. A half dozen bills have been introduced in the past year to provide adequately for housewives, widows and divorcees.
Under present law the non-working homemaker - of whom the vast majority are women - generally must depend upon the working spouse's pension plan for future benefits. Last year, as a concession to the wife of a worker who is not covered by any pension plan save Social Security, Congress set up the spousal Individual Retirement Account (IRA). This enables the married worker to set aside an annual maximum of $1,750 in a joint tax deferred account, with each partner sharing alike. This amounts to $250 more than the working spouse can set aside in a single beneficiary account.
Unfortunately, the homemaker whose spouse is covered by a company or other pension plan is out of luck under existing law. As a recognition of the homemaker's contribution, Sen. Wendell Anderson (D.-Minn.) and Rep. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.) introduced a bill last year that would allow any homemaker, not individually covered by another plan, to set aside a maximum of $1,500 annually toward retirement. The actual ceiling is determined by whichever is greater, $1,500 or 15 percent of the working spouse's income. The homemaker is even allowed to earn money.
For example, a wife whose husband earned $10,000 annually would be entitled to put a maxmimum of $1,500 annually into her own IRA. If the husband were elibible for an IRA, he could put another $1,500 into his own account. (The couple could claim a $3,000 tax write-off on their joint return.) She could do so even if she had a job, unless she was self-employed and set up a Keogh plan or was covered by her employer's plan.
However, if the wife worked only part-time for an employer who included her in the company plan, she could not contribute to a homemaker IRA as well. This applies to active participation, so that if the wife took several years off from her job, where she was covered under a company plan, she would be eligible for a homemaker's IRA during those years, but would also receive the company benefits upon retirement age.
The bill would require separate accounts so that in the case of divorce, even if the husband made the entire contribution to the wife's IRA, it would belong to her.
The Library of Congress Research Service estimates there are 30 million Americans today who earn no money, the vast majority of them women. It also calculates that the revenue loss to the Treasury would be $500 million annually, a drain that has cooled the administration's enthusiasm for the plan.
A similar "marriage-is-a-team" bill has been introduced by Reps. Donald Fraser (D-Minn.) and Martha Keys (D-Kan.). It would eliminate the concept of dependency from Social Security by granting the non-working spouse an equal share of the breadwinner's pension benefits.
If a husband, for example, earned $20,000 a year, both he and his non-working wife would each be entitled to benefits accruing on $10,000. If the wife were to earn $10,000 in addition to her husband's $20,000, they would both be credited with $15,000 income. If her income were higher she could choose the plan, as dependant or worker, that offered the better benefits. Income would be split annually, and in the case of divorce, each spouse would get the shared benefits for as long as the marriage lasted. It has been estimated that this plan would mean a 1.97 percent of payroll increase over the long range.
Other pending legislation is designed to eliminate problems caused by widowhood and divorce. Sens. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), as well as Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) have proposed amendments to the Employe Retirement Income Security Act making survivor benefits mandatory. The spouse of an employe who died after being vested but before reaching early retirement age would receive benefits either in the form of an immediate annuity or at retirement age. This would primarily affect people in the 35 to 62 age bracket.
The Labor Department, which is studying the costs of such a change, estimates the number of surviving spouses receiving benefits would increase from 47,000 beneficiaries in 1964 to more than 500,000 by 2014. (In Sweden, widows aged at least 36 by the time of their husband's death will receive a state pension; those over 50 will receive full pension, both provided they were married five years. Widows with custody of dependent children under 16 also receive a pension regardless of age or length of marriage.)
Holtzman also proposes to introduce legislation giving spouses the right to be informed about a worker's decision to choose whether survivor benefits will be paid after retirement. Providing survivor benefits results in the employe receiving actuarially lowered benefits after retirement unless the employer agrees to pay the difference. Under current law, the employe covered under a pension plan can make that decision without consulting his or her spouse. Also, if the employe makes no decision, it is assumed he or she does not want survivor benefits for the other spouse. Holtzman would reverse this situation and require a pension plan to pay survivor benefits unless the employe specified otherwise.
In reality, this situation too often means that widows find too late their husbands did not provide for them out of neglect or spite or greed. A husband may never have gotten around to signing the form, or he may have signed away his wife's rights in a moment of anger long forgotten, or he may simply havewanted the extra money to spend on his own retirement.
Back in 1965, Congress changed the Social Security Act to provide benefits for divorced spouses, and the number of years of marriage required for eligibility has now been dropped from 20 to 10. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has introduced legislation to extend that coverage to the military. She quoted a 1976 survey showing that 54 percent of military retirees elected survivors' plans. Spouses married the entire work period would be entitled to collect up to half of the federal annuity; otherwise retirement and death benefits would be determined on a pro-rata basis. Both government and pension plans managers contend this system would be administratively difficult and would raise the cost of providing pensions by 7 percent.
Still in the planning stage is legislation aimed at helping the majority of working women who work before marriage, leave to have children, and re-enter the job market some years later, possibly part-time, probably in a low-paying job. Suggestions for modifying eligibility rules for pensions in the private sector include counting the years before age 22 for purposes of vesting, shorter vesting periods and greater flexibility in coverage for part-time workers, as well as flexibility in break-in-service rules for those women re-entering the labor force after some years.
Finally, two feminist issues may come up next year as the result of two recent court cases. The Supreme Court ruled in Manhart v. City of Los Angeles that unequal employe contributions to a pension plan for men and women violate the Civil Rights Act. The companion issue is whether unisex life tables can be used for determing retirement benefits and whether there should be equal benefits for both sexes.
The California Supreme Court ruled in Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo that the value of the husband's railroad retirement benefits must be considered when making the property settlement. President Carter enacted a law in September providing that the Civil Service Commission shall pay benefits to a former spouse to comply with the terms of a court order or property settlement involving payments under the Civil Service Retirement System.
The question remains, however, whether federal changes in public and private pension law apply in divorce cases governed by state laws.