That’s a question posed to me the other day in an email from one of this blog’s readers. It’s an interesting question, both from a historical standpoint and in the current political environment in which women’s issues are an important component. So here’s the answer for all to see.

Let’s set the dial on the ERISA  Wayback Machine to 1984, a year (aside from the obvious reference) in which there were many memorable events. One of which occurred on October 5, the day that Astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D. became the first U.S. woman to walk in space.

And that’s an intentional segue to get to the question at hand. 1984 was the year in which women’s issues were paramount in the nation’s political consciousness. It was the year in which Geraldine Ferraro , the Democratic Representative from New York, became the first – and, to date, only – female Vice Presidential candidate representing a major American political party.

Rep. Ferraro was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA) which amended ERISA to include important economic protections for women. Under prior law, a widow may have found herself without continuing benefits because her husband signed away her rights without informing her. At that time, an employee could legally opt out of survivors’ benefits without informing his or her spouse.

This would increase the payments to the retiree during his lifetime, but offered no security for the surviving spouse. REA amended Title I of ERISA to require written consent of both the employee and his or her spouse to waive the survivors’ annuity option in a defined benefit plan. Under certain conditions, this rule also applies to defined contribution plans.

If you’re interested in economic history, here is a link to the booklet, The Retirement Equity Act of 1984: Its Impact on Women, published in 1986 by the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), the world’s largest digital library education literature. ERIC is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

So thanks, kind reader, for the question. I hope I’ve answered it to your satisfaction.