Congress recently expanded private pension benefits for widows and divorced women through the Retirement Equity Act and their pension and health insurance benefits through the Civil Service Retirement Spouse Equity Act.

The new laws, which go into effect next year, give women pension benefits if their husbands die or they are divorced. Women tend to assume that they will share their husbands' earnings after retirement. In many cases, this has been an unrealistic expectation. Although a wife might receive Social Security, she might not receive a pension or health insurance coverage in case of death or divorce.

The provisions of the new laws apply equally to men. However, because the overwhelming number of persons affected will be women -- primarily older women and especially those who never have worked outside the home -- this explanation focuses on women.

Although the new laws do represent improvements, they still will not fill all the gaps. To avoid needless disappointment, a woman should investigate her rights to benefits long before retirement.

Here are some questions and answers about benefits:

*How much can you expect to receive from Social Security after you and your husband retire? If he dies before you? If you become divorced?

Contact your nearest Social Security Administration office for information on estimating your benefits. Unless your husband was a civilian employe of the federal government, you should be able to count on some Social Security income. (New government employes are covered by Social Security.)

Social Security benefits are designed to provide only a minimum income. Payments to a retired worker now average $5,300 a year. If a husband, the sole wage earner, receives a benefit of $400 a month, his wife would receive a check equal to half, or $200 a month. If the wage earner dies, his benefits stop, but the widow then gets $400 a month.

If she were married at least 10 years before being divorced, the wife in this case would get $200 while her ex-husband was living. When he died, her benefit would be $400 a month. If he had remarried, the second wife also would get $400. If a wife or former wife has earned a Social Security benefit from her own work, she will not receive both a spouse's and worker's benefit, but only the larger of the two.

*Has your husband earned the right to receive a pension from his current or past employer? How much can he expect to receive at retirement age?

The average corporate pension is $4,310 a year. Under a pension plan run by a union or a corporation, an employe is entitled to a statement from the plan administrator indicating whether the worker is vested and how much the worker can expect at retirement age. (This figure may or may not include Social Security benefits.)

If the husband has earned the right to a pension, it means that the homemaker ordinarily will be able to share in that benefit while the couple remains married. If the husband dies, the homemaker may receive a much smaller benefit or none at all.

*How much in pension benefits can you expect to receive if you outlive your husband?

Under a private plan, the chances are good that the most a widow would receive is a benefit equal to one-half of what the husband earned under the plan. The benefit is most likely to be paid in the form of an annuity, but it may be paid as a lump sum. Civil Service survivor benefits are 55 percent of the worker's annuity.

Until now, a certain number of women were denied any benefits when their husbands chose not to accept a reduction in their own benefits to provide widow's benefits or when a husband died before retirement age. As the result of congressional action, both spouses now must agree to waive survivor's benefits. Also, in the future widows will have a chance to receive benefits even if their husbands die before reaching retirement age.

Before signing away your future right to survivor's benefits under your husband's plan, be sure that you can count on income from other sources to meet your retirement needs. A waiver of these rights may be irrevocable.

An employer often will provide life insurance for a wife, but it is usually payable as a lump sum to help with immediate expenses related to the husband's death.

*Can a divorced woman receive part of her ex-husband's benefits?

Although Social Security does provide benefits to divorced women if the marriage lasted 10 years, pension plans usually do not provide automatic benefits for divorced wives. If an ex-wife is to share in her husband's pension, in most cases he must agree to give her a share of the benefits he has accrued during their marriage, or the court must award her a share at the time of divorce.

Laws vary from state to state. In the District of Columbia and Maryland, courts may take pensions into account in dividing property at divorce. In Virginia, division of the pension itself is not allowed, although the court can award other property equal in value. And even if a former wife receives a share of her husband's pension, benefits may stop when he dies if the court did not award a survivor's benefit.

*Could a divorced wife receive a survivor's pension?

Most private pension plans and the Civil Service Retirement System used to pay a survivor's pension only to widows. New laws provide that a former spouse can receive survivor's benefits from a plan if it is arranged at the time of divorce through a court order. This is true even if the husband later remarried. Also, starting next year, the Civil Service System will allow certain wives divorced before the new law takes effect to sign up for survivor's protection without going back to court. Health Benefits

Health insurance for retirees and their spouses should not be taken for granted at retirement. A number of companies have started to curtail these benefits, asking employes and retirees to accept more of the cost of health care by paying higher premiums and deductibles.

*Would your husband's group health insurance coverage continue for you after his death? If you became divorced?

A woman receiving a Civil Service widow's annuity generally will be able to keep her federal group health insurance, even if her husband dies before retirement. Private pensions vary widely as to the circumstances and cost of covering widows whether the husband dies before retirement age or after.

Private employer coverage is less likely to continue for divorced wives. At the time of divorce, in some cases a court may be able to order the health insurance company to continue coverage for the ex-wife, at least temporarily. It is more common for the divorced wife to have, at most, the right of conversion; i.e., to be permitted coverage under an individual policy with the same company, at a higher rate.

Until recently, this was the only option for divorced spouses of federal employes. A new law allows certain divorced wives to retain their group coverage at lower, group rates.