Mid-America Pension Rights Project: What is REA and Why is it Important?

By Christine Steinmetz, Pension Attorney at the Mid-America Pension Rights Project at Elder Law of Michigan

Am I entitled to my late spouse’s pension? The Mid-America Pension Rights Project is frequently asked this question by clients. As a widow or widower, you MAY be entitled to part of your spouse’s pension.

Under Federal Law, known as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), private pension plans are required to provide a pension to the surviving spouse if the employee earned a pension benefit. Prior to 1984, the employee who participated in a private pension plan could waive the surviving spouse’s pension benefit without the surviving spouse’s knowledge.

This changed when the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, also known as REA, was enacted. REA was signed by Ronald Reagan on August 23, 1984. To waive the monthly benefit, under REA, both the employee and the spouse must sign a written form, called a “spousal consent form,” waiving the post-retirement survivor spouse benefit. REA applies to private pension plans after January 1, 1985.

REA allows the employee to waive the surviving spouse benefit only with the written consent of his or her spouse. Prior to REA, an employee could unilaterally waive a surviving spouse benefit, meaning that after the employee’s death the monthly benefit would end. The surviving spouse would not find out about employee’s decision until after he or she passed. This often came as a surprise to the surviving spouse.

REA was enacted to protect surviving spouses, who are most often women who left the workforce to raise families. So, whether you are entitled to a benefit from your late spouse’s private pension plan depends on whether the employee participated in a private plan, when the participant retired, and whether a waiver form was signed waiving the surviving spouse’s post-retirement survivor benefit.

If you have questions about your 401(k) or defined benefit pensions, please call the Mid-America Pension Rights Project. The Mid-America Pension Rights Project is funded by the Federal government through a grant provided by the Administration for Community Living, and is a program of Elder Law of Michigan, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Since the program began in 1998, the Pension Project has assisted over 15,000 clients and recovered over 75 million dollars in pension benefits. The Pension Project assists clients that either worked in or are currently living in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. For more information, visit www.mid-americapensions.org.

If you need help with or information about your pension or 401(k) benefit, please call the Mid-America Pension Rights Project at 866-735-7737 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced attorneys.

The information in this article is general and not intended to be a substitute for legal advice. In any legal matter you should always consider consulting with an attorney for specific advice.  

Christine Steinmetz is a part-time Attorney at Elder Law of Michigan and has been a member of the Elder Law team since 2011. As an attorney at Elder Law, Christine advises clients on pension benefits issues.