US women face stiffer challenge, special limitations

Women generally live longer than men. That's something to keep in mind when planning for retirement.

Inequities in social security and certain job limitations can pose special retirement problems for women, who on average live eight years longer than men. The inequities, limitations, and relative longevity demand special resourcefulness in financial planning.

Many women in retirement years face a cutoff of pension benefits when their husbands pass on. Social security benefits drop substantially. Older women often have trouble finding suitable work, and social security frequently doesn't help much either.

Several years ago the federal government conceded that social security, as it now stands, discriminates against women. A study made by what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) found that women receive no credit toward future social security payments for their work as homemakers.

Branding this practice unfair, the HEW report came up with a number of ideas to give women more money in retirement. But the suggestions were simply filed away, and they are unlikely to be taken up any time soon, given the current plight of the social security system.

As a result, reports the Kiplinger ''Changing Times'' magazine, the golden years may not turn out to be so golden for many older women. The magazine points out that:

* Half of the women in the United States who are 65 and older have incomes under $3,000 a year.

* Fewer than 2 percent of all elderly widows receive benefits under their husbands' private pension plans. Unless a man arranges for a special pension to go to his wife if she survives him, she will receive no pension benefits after his death.

* The average pension payment to retired women is less than $81 a month. One reason for this is that women often interrupt their careers for a period of time , thus accumulating fewer years of credits in pension funds.

Still, the future of women in retirement may not be all that grim. One way women can enjoy comfortable retirement years is to start planning early on, with their husbands, for problems that might have to be faced.

A first step is to get to know the various social security provisons. A free pamphlet, ''A Women's Guide to Social Security,'' is available at the nearest social security office. Another leaflet, ''Your Social Security,'' is also helpful.

Many social security offices will send pamphlets by mail upon request. Women should also:

* Keep track of earnings they might have had in jobs covered by social security, as well as the duration of those jobs. The requirements for benefit checks are complicated. Earned credits can be checked through the nearest social security office. If quarterly work credits are insufficient for a pension, women may work at least temporarily to assure benefits later.

* Remember how long they were in a company pension plan and whether they might have a continuing equity in company retirement funds. Millions of dollars are lost each year by employees who do not claim pensions.

* Bear in mind their status under pension plans covering their husbands. Both husbands and wives should consider, before retirement, how they want to receive payments. One option is to receive relatively large chunks of money payable from the time of retirement until the worker's passing. Another is to be given smaller amounts, payable after the worker's death for as long as the survivor lives.

For more information on private pensions, write to the Office of Pension & Benefit Programs, US Labor Department, Room N-4659, 200 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20210.)

* Consider the adequacy of insurance coverage. This is something that needs to be reviewed frequently. As often as not, families tend to buy too much coverage, which siphons off money that might otherwise be used for investments. But don't underinsure either.

* Begin planning for the future early. It is no longer safe in these inflationary times to count on social security and private pensions as sufficient to cover retirement budgets. Systematic savings and investments (perhaps through Individual Retirement Accounts) beginning in the 30s and early 40s can bring greater security in retirement years. It can also be valuable if the wife is widowed in later years.

* Be sure there is a will. Drawing up one may make a husband and wife uncomfortable. But without the document there can be serious problems. State laws vary widely on how money and property is to be divided if a spouse dies without a will.

* Size up the family's entire financial situation. Women should be as well-versed in family assets and debts as their husbands. This will help avoid problems if the women are widowed. All too often women simply leave money matters to their husbands.

These preparations can help avoid confusion and strain in widowhood. It can also ease concerns about budgeting and managing money.

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