Lisa and James met working on the railroad. After retiring more than a decade ago, they lived comfortably in a big house in small-town Maine thanks to the pension benefits their railroad jobs provided them.
But James’ death earlier this year wasn’t only an emotional blow for Lisa (these are not their real names), it was a financial triple-whammy. In an instant, Lisa lost two-thirds of the family’s income: James’ pension payments stopped coming, but so did the spousal pension benefits both of them had been receiving.
And it all came as a surprise.
Lisa and James didn’t prepare for retirement by purchasing supplemental insurance, and they weren’t fully aware of the terms of their retirement benefits, which are regulated under the federal Railroad Retirement Act. Lisa said she hopes her story serves as a lesson to others to be prepared in retirement.
“You don’t know how quickly things can change,” she said. “You think everything is going to go on for years and years and years, and you have nothing to worry about right now, but something horrible might happen at any moment, and you are not prepared for it. Take whatever precautions financially you need to so that if one of you is left, that that person doesn’t have to go through grieving and have to worry about finances. I mean that is the last thing you want to think about.”
Lisa is a Maine native, but she moved out of state with her family as a young adult and found work on the railroad. That’s where she met James, a fellow employee.
“It was a good job to have,” Lisa said. “Good benefits, good salary. It was a good life.”
After 20 years of service, Lisa and James, both in their 40s, retired from the railroad and moved back to Maine, buying a home with land in a small town.
Each found new work, which they continued into their 50s. James retired in 2002, at 59, and began to get his railroad retirement. Lisa retired in 2004, at 55, and began receiving railroad disability benefits for some chronic health conditions with which she was coping.
“Because the railroad was our majority employer, they were the administrator of our benefits,” Lisa said. “The railroad took all our Social Security and put it into our pension. It is an odd situation. It is very confusing how they do it.”
When Lisa was 62 and James was 66, they started to each receive a spousal benefit — equal to half the other’s pension — in addition to their regular pensions. When James died, not only did his pension end, but so did both the spousal benefits.
“Of course, when we had it, it was a wonderful benefit,” Lisa said. “Little did we know that when he passed away, that would go.”
Until five months before he died, James was healthy and strong, according to Lisa. He had Medicare, but no supplemental health insurance — an instance of them not thinking ahead.
“I guess we were kind of lulled into thinking that we’re not that old, and that time would go on for many years more,” Lisa said. “So we never even had our minds wrapped around what would happen if one of us died. James was the picture of health.”
Since his death, Lisa has not only dealt with her deep grief and the shock of losing her husband of 25 years, but she also is struggling with how to pay her bills on an income only one-third what it was when he was alive. And the adjustment to living alone in the country without James has been difficult.
“When my husband was here, this was our universe,” she said. “It was perfect for us. We loved it out here. Now it is very lonely. It is a big house — more work than I can handle and more expensive than I can handle. I’m just getting by, by the skin of my teeth. I have no clue how I’m going to get through the winter.”
Lisa recently put the house up for sale but has had no offers. If she does sell the house, she plans to buy a double-wide and put it on a relative’s property.
“I’ll be on my family’s land, so I won’t have taxes,” she said. “I’ll have my utilities to pay for, and I’ll be OK. I won’t get rich, but I’ll be comfortable. And that is pretty much all I can hope for. It will be very different. It will be easier physically and financially, but my heart will be broken. It already is.”
The policy that led to her losing James’s pension and both spousal benefits when he died caught her by surprise.
“I could understand them taking away his benefit, but they should let me keep mine,” she said. “He did still work all those years on the railroad, and I’m still here.”
Lisa has read and reread the Railroad Retirement and Survivor Benefits booklet, but says, “I guess I’ve misread so many things because of the way it is worded. It is very, very confusing. Maybe they think that is layman’s terms, but I was certainly very mixed up and very confused reading that. In some parts I said, ‘Oh, I’m entitled,’ and other parts I said, ‘Oh, I’m not included.’ At first I thought I would fight for my rights, but I think it is all there in black and white, and I failed to read it.”
At the time of our interview in late summer, Lisa expressed worry about unexpected bills appearing for the extensive medical care for James’ illness — the multiple tests, hospital stays and surgery.
“I keep looking in the mailbox everyday, thinking ‘Oh, this is where they are going to kill me,’” she said. “I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, when they send the bills.”
Up to that point, none had come.
But, coincidentally, as our interview ended, Lisa checked her mail and found the first medical bill for the health care James had received more than six months before. It was for over $500 — an amount she can ill afford in this time of extreme grief and vastly reduced income.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.