Geraldine Ferraro who died yesterday at age 75 was a political trailblazer. 

She was, of course, the first woman named to a major-party presidential ticket when Walter Mondale picked her to be his Democratic party running mate in 1984. But while the Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost 49 out of 50 states to the Republican ticket of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush, let’s not forget her ERISA legacy.

Then Congresswoman Ferraro authored the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA) which was designed to protect participants’ spouses who were mostly women from losing retirement benefits earned by their husbands.

REA provided that protection by amending ERISA in several important ways to: 

  • Permit employees to leave and return to a job without sacrificing the pension credits built up unless the breaks in service exceed 5 consecutive years or the amount of time the employee worked at the job before leaving, whichever is greater.
  • Provide protection against loss of participation and vesting credits when a woman or man is absent for specified parental reasons. These cover absences for pregnancy, childbirth, or adoption.
  • Require plans to provide automatic survivor benefits for spouses of vested participants even if the participant dies before retirement.
  • Prevent employees from waiving survivor benefits without the written consent of their spouses.
  • Permit the assignment of pension benefits in divorce cases when there is a valid judgment, decree, or court order relating to child support, alimony payments, or marital property rights.
  • Offer some vested former employees a new opportunity to choose preretirement survivor benefits and joint and survivor annuity benefits, provided certain conditions are met.

Her nomination for Vice President, a watershed moment. Her ERISA legacy, monumental.