Pension Rights

Help is available to secure your pension

Whether your retirement is close at hand or years away, you’re likely counting on savings and other income sources you’ve maintained to provide you with a comfortable and secure life after working for years. If you’re counting on a pension, take steps now to make certain it’s in place and available when you decide to retire.

A defined benefit pension is a retirement plan that may provide monthly income for the rest of your life. Pensions are sponsored by your employer and provided to you based on your years of service, compensation and other factors. Unlike a 401(k), the employer bears all of the risk and responsibility for funding the pension plan. But, employers can make mistakes.

Take the case of William, a Pension Action Center client.

William worked for a company outside of Chicago off and on for about 20 years. He had two breaks in service that resulted from factory-wide reductions in force. After the first layoff, he was recruited back, because the factory needed someone with his specialized skills. When he was laid off again, he had worked about 12 years in total, and was fully vested in the company’s pension plan.

In the mid-1980s, the company that owned the factory decided to close it down permanently. The company again recruited William back to help with the closure. He understood that his brief return would increase his pension benefit at retirement.

But the employer made a big mistake. When personnel matters were wrapped up for the remaining factory employees, William’s service credit for his pension was recorded based on his short return to his employer to close down the factory. The employer did not credit him with the 12 years of service from earlier in his career. As a result, William was not included on the list of employees who had earned a pension. Continue reading

Help for locating your “lost” 401(k) account

No one intentionally loses money or leaves it behind. Yet, Americans have left billions of dollars in unclaimed 401(k) accounts. You may have changed jobs and, in the rush to wrap things up or accommodate a move to another state, neglected to take your account information with you.

Regardless of how or when this happened, there are a number of steps you can take to try to recover your account. The Pension Action Center at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute provides free legal counseling to people living in one of the six New England states and Illinois and has successfully helped people recoup more than $60 million in retirement benefits. While not always a simple task, they can help you to locate your 401(k).

“People lose track of their 401(k) for a variety of reasons,” says Anna-Marie Tabor. “But, there are steps you can take to track down and claim your money. It may take some time and research, but this is money you earned and saved for your retirement.  When it’s time to retire, you will be glad you invested the time to try and locate it now.”

Among the first steps to take, make sure that you did not already cash out or rollover your 401(k) years ago. Reach out to your former employer.

“Keeping your 401(k) statements and previous tax returns provides you with some paperwork to document that you have an account,” says Tabor. “Your old paystubs may also show that you contributed to a 401(k).” Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Pension Confusion Resolved, but Benefit Arrived Decades Too Late for Former Chicago Hospital Worker

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. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Tracking Down Benefit When Employer Transforms Pension into Annuity

There was a reason why Marco couldn’t find the pension he had earned many years ago. It didn’t exist any longer.

Many clients call the Pension Action Center because they can’t figure out who is responsible for paying them benefits earned long ago. Employers merge, go out of business or just disappear as entities in their own right. It’s a challenge to find out who is responsible for paying the benefit now.

But an increasing number of retirees need help because the pensions they’re looking for aren’t actually pensions any longer. Marco, who asked that his real name not be used for this story, was one of them.

At some point, his pension had been transformed from an employer’s retirement obligation into an annuity administered by an insurance company. But he had known nothing about it.

Employers who no longer want to maintain their pension plans can pay insurance companies to take over the obligations, a multi-billion dollar financial strategy known as “pension risk transfer.” Continue reading

Students Jump in to Help Pension Action Center Manage Surge in Callers Seeking Help With Benefits

Pension Action Center student program participants

The students who helped the Pension Action Center process a big increase in calls for assistance. Left to right, Elizabeth Arpino, Kailyn Fellmeth, and Andrew Bellahcene.

Can you wear out a phone?

The Pension Action Center at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute is always busy fielding calls from people seeking help to track down their pensions or investigate benefits they believe they are owed. But the pace of callers seeking PAC helped went into overdrive during the fall.

That posed a problem for the small center with a limited number of people on hand to manage the volume. One solution: A grant from the McCormack Graduate School allowed PAC Director Anna-Marie Tabor to hire UMass Boston undergraduate students to jump in and help process the pension queries during the fall semester. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Defending Retiree After Pension Plan Sent Her $37,000 Bill for Error it Made Long Ago

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.

 Pensions are supposed to provide modest but regular income to help retirees make ends meet. Imagine a pension plan that instead sends a beneficiary an unexpected bill for $37,000.

This actually happened to “Sue,” a Pension Action Center client from Bridgeview, Ill. The plan in question said it made a mistake long ago and, as a result, had been paying her too much for years. It wanted to settle the matter by cutting off all her payments in the future, starting immediately.

The PAC helpline has been receiving an increasing number of calls from clients like Sue dealing with pension plan “recoupments.” In those cases, pension plans seek to correct their own miscalculations by demanding repayment from unsuspecting beneficiaries. Continue reading

Few Legal Options for Workers, Retirees When Church-Affiliated Hospital Pension Plans Fall Short

Sophie Esquier

Sophie Esquier

Bernice Benson spent 37 years working in the business office at St. Clare’s Hospital in upstate New York before retiring in 2008. The exit interview didn’t go well.

Benson learned her defined benefit pension would not be “what she had expected.” She took the hospital up on an offer to work one day a week in retirement to supplement pension payments that fell short by $200 a month. Eight years later, participants learned the St. Clare’s pension plan had been woefully underfunded. Benson, now 75 and still working one day per week, expects her pension payments to stop entirely around the time she reaches age 80.

Many workers and retirees like Benson are not covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the 1974 law commonly known as ERISA, which protects the rights of defined benefit pension beneficiaries. The law always exempted plans offered by churches and, years later, an amendment extended that exemption to include related employers such as hospitals affiliated with qualifying religious organizations.

Those extended exemptions were challenged in court more recently. But a unanimous 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings and affirmed that religiously affiliated hospitals qualify for the ERISA exemption. Although Supreme Court left open the possibility of subsequent lawsuits, by not addressing the question of whether a hospital’s internal benefits committee is a “principal purpose organization,” the ERISA exemption is still permitted.

Sophie Esquier, staff attorney at the Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center, and Boston University law professor Maria O’Brien Hylton looked into the remaining legal options available to retirees affected by the decision. Writing in the New York University Review of Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation, they outline several ways employees and retirees affected by the exemption might use state laws to fight for their benefits when necessary. Continue reading

PAC Case Study: Timing of Pension Claim Helps Former Wife Collect Survivor 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.

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. Continue reading

Meet Anna-Marie Tabor: New Director of Pension Action Center at UMass Boston

Anna-Marie Tabor has been named the new director of the Pension Action Center at the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute. Tabor, who joins UMass Boston from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has deep legal experience defending the rights of individuals on issues related to financial services. She recently discussed her career and plans as the center’s new director. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

You’re a lawyer with a lot of public service experience. What attracted you to this particular position?

I’ve always been interested in economic justice. When I heard about the Pension Action Center, I was impressed by the enormous impact it’s had returning millions of dollars to individual clients. That’s not just a series of one-time payments but streams of income over time that can make such a difference for someone struggling to afford basic necessities. I’m also very excited about being located at UMass Boston and in the Gerontology Institute. I’m looking forward to working with the students and faculty to identify opportunities to delve into some of the systemic issues that the Pension Action Center sees with its clients. Continue reading

PAC receives $1 Million Grant for New England Pension Counseling

A new $1 million grant will make it possible for the Pension Action Center at UMass Boston to continue providing free pension legal counseling to people across New England for the next five years.

The grant was made by the Administration for Community Living of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a long-time supporter of the center. The funds were awarded to the New England Pension Assistance Project, which is operated by the center. Continue reading