We have done this post a number of years in the past as an “Almost Annual Mother’s Day” piece; our attempt to put a very personal twist to the things we do, with a larger and hopeful light on many of the mundane tasks that make up much of our business. We now post it as a memoriam to Patti Anne Courtney, the finest of Irish Moms, who has passed early this morning. She is the inspiration of much of the work I do today.
On the rare morning when the breeze would blow in from the east, from the river, the orange dust from the prior night’s firings of the open hearth furnaces at Great Lakes Steel would settle onto the cars parked in the street. My Mom’s father worked there; my Dad’s father was a furnace brick mason at Detroit Edison; my father a tool and die maker at Ford’s Rouge Plant, not far down the road. Yes, I am a native Detroiter.
ERISA wonks such as ourselves tend to get lost in the press of details which seem to flow non-stop from our regulators and legislators in D.C. It is this background that reminds me that it is sometimes helpful to step back and see the personal impact of the things we do, even on the plant floor.
A few years back, a good friend of mine who ran the retirement plan operations of a large insurance company asked me to speak about ERISA to a meeting of his administrative processing staff. At the time, they were still struggling with some of the more difficult administrative processes related to the QJSA and QPSA rules. Here’s what I told them:
My father died at the Rouge Plant in 1970, after 20 years with the company. Back then, the normal form of benefit under a defined benefit plan was a single life annuity, covering the life of only the employee. There was no such thing yet as a qualified joint and survivor annuity or a qualified pre-retirement survivor’s annuity. This meant that my father’s pension died with him. My mother was the typical stay-at-home mother of the period who was depending on that pension benefit for the future, but was left with nothing. With my father’s wages topping at $13,000 annually and five kids at home, there was also little chance to accumulate savings.
The Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (a copy of which I still keep in my office) was designed to change all of that. By implementing the requirement of a spousal survivor annuity, a whole class of non-working spouses received protection which was desperately needed. So in that speech to my friend’s administrative staff, I asked them to take a broader view-if just for a moment- of the important task they were being asked to implement. It was valuable social policy with real, human effect which they were responsible for pulling off, and they should take a measure of pride in the work they were doing.
Things have evolved much over the years, and some of those same rules which provided such valuable protection have become the matter of great policy discussions centering on whether they are appropriately designed, and whether they can be modified in a way to accommodate new benefits like guaranteed lifetime income from defined contribution plans. But the point is that Congress sometimes gets it right, and there is very valuable social benefit often hidden in the day to day “grunge” of administering what often seems to be silly rules.
Mom lived a long and good life. She left us with, among other things, the gift of music. A song from my youth which I sang to her last night seemed fitting, written by an Irishman, no less:
Sing your way home, at the close of the day;
sing your way home, drive the shadows away.
Smile every mile, for wherever you roam;
it will lighten your load,
it will brighten your road,
when you sing your way home.
And we are grateful that she did go gently into the good night, for there was no dying of the light.
Bob and Conni