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June 1991, Vol. 114, No. 6
David E. Ott
A s the twentieth century comes to a close, more Americans are living longer, making the 65 and older age group the most rapidly growing segment of the population. Common among this group are widows or widowers, many of whom experience a drastic cut in income when their spouses die. In fact, many widows are left below the poverty level when their husbands' income sources are cut off at death. One report estimated that 32 percent of nonhousing wealth and most of job-related pensions disappear during the 2-year interval in which the husband dies, and that 75 percent of poor widows were not poor when their husbands were alive.1
Certainly, many families are faced with a sudden change in lifestyle when the primary wage earner dies prematurely without making appropriate arrangements to replace lost income. Indeed, the proportion of women in the work force and the average income of working women has risen significantly in recent years, so that the death of either working spouse can seriously affect family income.
In light of these realities, employers offer a wide variety of benefit plans that are designed, at least in part, to protect survivors. Such benefits can be divided into two groups: those designed to provide a stream of future periodic income and those designed to provide an immediate single lump-sum payment. Many of these plans have coordination provisions, designed to avoid duplicate payments, thereby limiting the total benefit received.
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1 Michael D. Hurd and David A. Wise, The Wealth and Poverty of Widows, Working Paper No. 2325 (Cambridge, MA., National Bureau of Economic Research, 1987).
While pension plans usually provide survivor benefits, not all workers are covered by pension plans and many of the survivors are not entitled to pension benefits based on their own work experience.
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