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.

Couples who go through a divorce need to sort out many financial issues. Settling rights to pension benefits can be an important part of the process.

But a divorce may take place many years or even decades before a pension begins to pay a benefit. Over that time, a lot can happen to separate former spouses from benefits they are legally entitled to collect.

That’s what brought a 75-year-old woman from greater Boston to the Pension Action Center. She was living on less than $20,000 per year and hadn’t been receiving the benefits she was due from her ex-husband’s pension.

The couple divorced in 1991 and, at that time, the client had obtained a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) outlining her future rights to her husband’s retirement benefit.

“Pensions and retirement benefits are not automatically split in a divorce, but they may be one of the biggest financial assets a couple has,” said PAC Director Jeanne Medeiros.

“It is crucial to get a domestic relations order from the court at the time of the divorce for an ex-spouse to be entitled to a fair share of the retirement benefits,” she said.  “In this case, our client had done exactly that, but still had a problem receiving the money to which she was entitled.”

The Pension Action Center took on the Boston-area woman’s case more than quarter century after the couple had divorced. Over those years, the company where the client’s ex-husband worked had been bought and sold several times.

After a lengthy investigation, pension counselor Maureen Egan was able to identify the corporate successor as GKN North America and determined that the pension benefits in question were being paid through Prudential Retirement Services.

When contacted, Prudential seemed unaware that a QDRO existed and had been paying the ex-husband a full monthly benefit without reducing it to account for the lifetime share and survivor benefit due to the center’s client.

Prudential initially said the woman could not receive those benefits because her ex-husband was already in pay status receiving a single-life annuity. The PAC filed a claim on her behalf, arguing the client had a valid QDRO and that the plan had failed to keep accurate records necessary to properly administer benefits.

The plan then agreed, paying the client $9,885 retroactive to 2005 and establishing her pension benefit on an ongoing basis.

“Our client would never have been able to get her rightful benefit on her own,” said Egan. “She did not have the resources to hire a private attorney or conduct a lengthy investigation. For a person who lives on a very modest income, these benefits are vital. We are so happy that, through our work, she will now be more financially secure.”