At the Pension Rights Center our happiest moments come when people receive their pensions, sometimes after many years of trying. Thanks to the new Worker, Retiree, and Employer Recovery Act of 2008, signed into law on December 23rd, Rose Colon, a former spouse of a railroad retiree, will finally receive her survivor annuity.
Most of the new law deals with technical corrections to the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) that relate to funding requirements for private pension plans, but it also contains two provisions that help former spouses of railroad employees and retirees who were inadvertently left out of the PPA.
The first provision will ensure that individuals with a court-awarded share of their former spouse’s railroad pension will be able to begin taking the Tier I (Social Security) and Tier II (traditional pension) benefits as soon as their former spouse becomes eligible to receive the benefits – regardless of whether the former spouse actually retires.
The second provision is the one that will help Rose Colon. Rose was married for 27 years to a railroad worker. They had three children. When they divorced amicably in 1994, her divorce decree included a share of his Tier II railroad pension and a survivor annuity, so that she would continue to receive a pension after her ex-husband died. However, the law at the time did not allow former spouses to collect Tier II survivor benefits. In fact, the Railroad Retirement system was the last remaining federal retirement program that did not recognize court awards of survivor benefits to ex-spouses.
A provision to help surviving former spouses was included in the PPA. However it only benefited those whose former spouses died after the PPA took effect in August 2006. Unfortunately for Rose, her ex-husband died before the PPA became law.
Thanks to Rose’s persistence, advocacy by the National Women’s Law Center and the Pension Rights Center, and strong support from Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the Worker, Retiree, and Employer Recovery Act of 2008 clarifies that women like Rose – whose ex-husbands died before the PPA – can still apply for and receive railroad Tier II survivor benefits, provided they were awarded these benefits in their divorce court orders.