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.

Timing can be everything.

The Pension Action Center has represented clients in many disputes involving divorce and the right to benefits. Often these cases hinge on whether couples reached an agreement and signed documents about the disposition of retirement benefits as part of their divorce settlement.

The bad news for a client the PAC recently represented was that she never obtained such an agreement, known as a Qualified Domestic Relations Order, or QDRO.

The good news: She was entitled to survivor benefits nonetheless due to the unusual timing of her late former husband’s application for pension payments.

The Chicago couple was divorced in December 2014 and the PAC client’s former husband died in January 2018. The client, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., contacted Teamsters pension officials after his death to inquire about her right to a survivor’s benefit but was told she had none.

Then she contacted the Pension Action Center.

PAC attorney Sophie Esquier looked into the pension application filed by her client’s former husband and discovered something important in the details. The original date on the application was Dec. 4, 2014, the very day the couple’s divorce became final. However, that date was crossed out and the application became official two days later.

But wait, that isn’t the strange part.

The former Teamster had been eligible for his pension two months earlier but did not apply while his divorce remained pending. He accurately reported not being married at the time his application was processed. But he requested retroactive payments dating back to Oct. 1 of that year, after he first became eligible.

The key detail: He had been married at the time he began receiving benefits, as dictated by his own application.

The pension center pointed out these timing issues to the Teamsters pension fund and noted its client had never waived her right to survivor’s benefits. The fund agreed: She was entitled to the benefit after all.

“Ordinarily, she would have needed a QDRO to receive benefits if her ex-husband had waited until their divorce finalized to retire,” said Esquier.

“However, the husband’s request for a retroactive retirement date and the plan’s initial failure to take his prior marriage dates into account resulted in a favorable outcome for her,” she said.

As a result of the settlement, the PAC client began receiving monthly pension survivor’s benefits of $1,024.64 per month. She also received a lump sum of more than $6,000 to cover the first six months after her former husband’s death.

“We’re thrilled that she’s receiving the benefit she is entitled to,” said Esquier. “But this case points out how important it is to exercise your rights as a spouse and ask for a QDRO during a divorce.”