Preparing for retirement is a bit like competing in a marathon. It’s long and hard, and it requires a steady pace. It also requires information about the course ahead. Although most retirement plans provide employees with information about what their pensions will be, some spouses are kept in the dark. If their husbands or wives earn a pension from certain state and municipal retirement systems, they may not be told whether they will receive a survivor benefit.
Recently I received a call that illustrates this problem in concrete terms. The caller was married for more than 30 years to a public transit worker in upstate New York. Her husband retired and began drawing his pension in 2005 after a long career. In 2011, her husband suffered a heart attack and died. A month later she contacted the New York State Retirement System, only to learn that no survivor benefit would be paid. She had never been told that her husband had chosen to take his pension only for his life. There was no benefit for her. As a result, she is now 72 years old and has to rely upon her meager savings and Social Security benefit to support her for the rest of her life.
This happened because New York is one of 20 states that allow state employees to choose whether to provide survivor benefits without any agreement by, or notification to, their spouse. In the private sector, the decision whether to receive pension benefits only for the life of a retiree, or for the life of the retiree and his or her surviving spouse, must be made jointly by both partners to the marriage. Unfortunately, this requirement does not exist across the board for employees of states and cities. Some state and municipal pension plans require that both the spouse and the participant agree to the type of retirement payout, some say that the spouse must be notified if he or she will not get a survivor benefit, and many require no involvement by or notification to the spouse.
Today we posted a fact sheet that lays out which state retirement systems provide protections for spouses – and which states do not. If spousal consent is not required for your spouse’s state pension benefit election, make sure you know what election your spouse has made or plans to make when he or she retires.
If your spouse earns a pension from a county, city, or other local government and you don’t know if the plan requires your consent to give up your right to a survivor’s benefit, you should contact one of the Pension Counseling and Information Projects for assistance.
The Pension Rights Center believes that spouses should always be involved in these decisions. If yours is one of the states that does not require spousal consent, use our website to contact your state legislators and let them know that this issue is important to you.