PAC Case Study: Helping a Widow Secure Survivor Pension Benefit

The Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center is part of  the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income workers, retirees and their survivors in the six New England states and Illinois whose pension benefits have been wrongfully denied. This is one in an occasional series of posts about cases the center pursues on behalf of its clients.

A 67-year old widow from Charlestown came to the Pension Action Center with a sad story and a serious problem. Her husband had worked cleaning offices as a member of the Service Employees International Union for over 30 years. But union pension fund officials told her she was not entitled to a survivor’s benefit as a result of his sudden death – just one day after signing forms to begin receiving his pension.

Last year on Aug. 9, the center’s client and her husband went to the fund’s office to fill out the paperwork necessary to start his pension payments. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a married person has the right to a 50 percent survivor benefit upon the death of his or her spouse. That right can only be waived in a process strictly following ERISA’s rules, which specify that the person must make a knowing and informed waiver of his or her rights, must have an opportunity to rescind consent before the payments begin and must sign in the presence of a notary public. Clearly, the law very strongly favors spouses receiving survivor benefits, and provides numerous safeguards to protect against unwitting waivers.

In this case, the client and her husband had been presented with benefit election documents printed in English, even though the fund’s plan summary and all its forms were also available in Spanish and Portuguese. Our client, whose primary language is Spanish, does not speak or read English. Her husband chose a single-life benefit for his pension. Unfortunately, the client filled out the form agreeing to that selection and waived her right to a survivor benefit.

The next day, her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. Several weeks after his death, the client went into the union pension fund’s office with her son and asked if she could revoke the election made the day before her husband’s death. She was not allowed to do so.

The woman and her son later contacted the Pension Action Center, which filed a claim on her behalf arguing three main points. The claim stated that the woman had the right to revoke her consent and the plan was required to accept that decision. It also stated that since her husband died before actually receiving any of his pension, she was entitled to a pre-retirement survivor’s benefit that should have been applied automatically upon his death. Finally, the claim asserted that the pension plan had breached its fiduciary duty to her by providing English-only forms.

The plan ultimately relented, accepting the argument that the client had a right to revoke her consent and did indeed exercise it. The plan agreed to pay her the 50 percent survivor benefit retroactive to her husband’s death.

The client’s survivor benefit of $300 per month has a projected value of about $69,000.

“We were thrilled to help her achieve this victory,” said Jeanne Medeiros, director of the Pension Action Center. “This type of case illustrates how difficult it can be for beneficiaries to engage private-practice attorneys in pension cases. It’s just too small for many lawyers. But the amount of money at stake in this case means a great deal to our client and we were proud to help her secure the benefit she was owed.”

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