Death benefits are a taboo subject for many teachers. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers' says its factsheet on death benefits is the one nobody seems to need. "Everyone buries their heads in the sand," says Marion Bird, deputy head of pensions at the ATL. "Then some people leave it too late to get proper advice."
The hard facts are that the maximum widow's pension (unless the teacher contributed to the old family benefits scheme) is around a third of her husband's pension - depending on the number of years the teacher has served since 1972 - plus a short-term pension equivalent to three months of his full pension.
Widows with dependent children are treated a little more generously. The short-term pension is doubled, and the long-term pension increased by 50 per cent for one child or 100 per cent for two or more.
But widowers get a raw deal. Here, only the teacher's years of service since 1988 count. Unless a teacher made backdated contributions towards a widower's pension, the most her widower could expect to receive would be one-tenth of her pension, plus the same benefits for dependent children as with a widow's pension.
According to the ATL, many teachers are also unaware that if they leave the profession before retirement and die before claiming their pension, their estate is eligible for a death grant (see box). But the teacher's representatives must claim the grant from Teachers' Pensions - it will not be awarded automatically.
The most difficult choices confront serving teachers who are terminally ill. For those with less than a year to live, the first decision is whether to die in service or to commute pension benefits into a lump sum (see box).
The ATL says some long-serving teachers may gain more by commuting their pensions. Anyone with more than 15 to 20 years' service, for instance, should consider commutation. Someone expecting a pension of pound;10,000 a year would receive a lump sum of about pound;70,000.
But commutation must be compared with the benefits available to families of teachers who die in service. Although the widow's and widower's pensions are unaffected, a lump sum equal to twice the teacher's annual salary, would be forfeit.
Commutation can provide some extra cash at a time when the family may need it. The proceeds from a commuted pension could also be invested to provide extra benefits for surviving family members.
'Death Benefits is available from the ATL, 7 Northumberland Street, London WC2N 5DA
* COUNTING THE COSTS
Eileen Charnley's husband died of cancer in 1996, leaving her with four-year-old triplets. "Widows' pensions are the last thing you think about at 40, so I had no idea how much to expect," Mrs Charnley says. "The pension would never have been enough on its own. It's lucky we took out life insurance so the mortgage has been paid off and the lump sum invested."
She receives pound;181 a month widow's pension plus pound;198 for the triplets, one of whom has Down's syndrome. She also gets widowed mother's benefit of pound;118 a month from the DSS, although the invalid care allowance of pound;33 a week she received for looking after the child with Down's stopped when her husband died.
Children's clothes, house maintenance and running a car, essential in the area of Northumberland where she lives, strain her finances the most. Holidays are another burden as Mrs Charnley has to pay someone to accompany her and help her look after the children. Returning to work is not an option for Mrs Charnley, a former teacher, as childcare costs are too high.
After her husband's death, Patricia Dulling was horrified to find she would receive less than a quarter of his pension. "I had expected my widow's pension would be a third of his pension," she says.
When her husband died in January this year, she discovered she would receive pound;1,555 a year, although her husband's pension had been pound;8,907.
Mr Dulling, a former head of modern languages, started teaching in 1949, but did not pay any extra family benefits into the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme. So, only his service from April 1972 until retirement in August 1983 counted towards widow's benefits. "We couldn't afford the extra contributions - teachers are not well-paid and we had two children," she says. Mrs Dulling has some savings, but she expects her financial situation to become increasingly difficult.
Gratton O'Brien was left with a widower's pension of pound;100 a month and three dependent children when his wife died in 1995. His children get pound;120 a month between them from the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme. "It is a bit hand-to-mouth but we just about get by," Mr O'Brien says. "Without my savings and money from life-insurance policies, it would be impossible." His own pension is modest as he took early retirement from his deputy headship in 1990 because of ill-health.
Although she was working as head of a nursery unit until a week before she died, Mrs O'Brien's pension contributions had been interrupted when she took a career break to raise the couple's children. Fortunately, she boosted her pension with an additional voluntary contribution, with life insurance. Mr O'Brien invested the life insurance money to provide extra income.
* Mr O'Brien tries to help his two children who are at university. "I give them pound;100 a month each, and cover large bills."
* WHAT THE BEREAVED ARE EXPECTED TO LIVE ON
If husband dies after retirement, maximum pension is around a third of husband's pension plus short-term allowance equivalent to three months of husband's full pension.
For widows with dependent children, short-term pension doubled, long-term pension increased by 50 per cent for the first child and 100 per cent for two or more children.
If wife dies after retirement, maximum pension is around 10 per cent of wife's pension, unless she made extra contributions, plus short-term allowance equivalent to three months of wife's pension. For widowers with dependent children short-term pension doubled, long-term pension increased by 50 per cent for first child, by 100 per cent for two or more.
DEATH IN SERVICE
Same terms as widow's or widower's pension, plus death grant of twice teacher's annual salary.
Teachers who leave profession before retirement and die before claiming pension qualify for lump sum equal to amount teacher would have received on retirement (depends on age and length of service on leaving teaching) or a refund of super-annuation contributions plus 3 per cent compound interest, whichever is the greater.
Commutation lump sum equals: expected annual pension minus guaranteed minimum pension, total multiplied by five, and a further three times annual pension added.