Lillie McWilliams passed away at the age of 86 without getting a dime of her pension.

McWilliams worked at a hospital in Chicago as a housekeeper in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her daughter, Carol Griffin, believes she never knew she’d earned a pension and may have believed she lost any entitlement to a retirement benefit when her job was eliminated in 1983.

Carol and Lillie were very close throughout Lillie’s life and they lived together for many years. Carol, who was a nurse, stopped working outside the home when Lillie became ill and required full-time care. Money was tight, but it was important to Carol to keep her mother in their home and serve as her nurse.

After Lillie died in 2014, Carol was unable to return to her nursing career due to her own poor health. But she couldn’t afford to retire and took a part-time job as a hospital greeter.

About four years later, Carol was surprised by a letter she received at her house through the US Postal Service forwarding service. Addressed to her mother, the letter from Lillie’s former employer stated that she was entitled to a pension that the fund now wished to pay. At that time, the fund was unaware that Lillie had died – although she would have been over 90 years old, decades past the normal retirement age of 65.

But the pension fund was unresponsive when Carol called to claim the benefit.  She contacted a private attorney who could not take her case, but then got in touch with the Pension Action Center.

The center’s staff worked with Carol to make sure she received her mother’s full benefit, which had been understated by the fund’s initial calculations. After months of back-and-forth with the pension fund, Carol finally received a benefit of just over $30,000.

“There are a lot of people that have money out there, and they don’t know that they have it, for whatever reason,” said Carol. “If that happens to you, you’re not alone.  There’s help out there if you find yourself in this position.”

Carol is grateful for the benefit, but the victory was bittersweet after her family’s years of economic hardship. “If we’d known about the pension, that would have helped so much,” she said.

The story does not end there. Lillie’s years of work would provide support for her daughter in a way that neither she nor Carol could have imagined.

A few weeks ago, Carol was diagnosed with COVID-19. Her chronic health conditions made her a high-risk case, and she was quarantined at home for a month. She has since recovered and hopes to be cleared to return to her part-time job soon.

In the meantime, the pension money is helping bridging the gap. “It’s just getting food in here and keeping things going,” she said.