Like many retirees and widows, Margaret has been relying on a fixed income. Suddenly, she receives a letter from the pension company stating that her monthly pension of $800 was an error and will be reduced to pay back a $4,000 overpayment.
The pension is Margaret’s only income and already doesn’t cover basic living expenses. She recently moved in with her elderly father, has no medical insurance, is a month behind on her car payment, and visits food closets for groceries.
Unable to afford an attorney, Margaret turns to the Western States Pension Assistance Project (WSPAP), a federally funded program that provides free pension assistance by phone to people who live or have worked in Hawaii, California, Arizona or Nevada. The counseling project, one of seven nationwide funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging, serves all ages and income levels.
“Pension law is complicated, and many retirees, surviving spouses and their family members are not able to afford to hire an attorney when a problem occurs,” said attorney Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, who directs the project. “We provide vital legal assistance to hundreds of workers and their families, many of whom would otherwise have little or no access to expert advice regarding their retirement benefits. Since the project started in 2007, we have helped retirees and surviving spouses access more than $10 million in retirement benefits that they earned.”
In Margaret’s case, WSPAP successfully represented the senior before the pension plan, defending against the recovery of the overpayment. The company agreed to waive the overpayment and restore Margaret’s monthly benefit.
Many people contact WSPAP after trying unsuccessfully to track down pension benefits from a company that no longer exists, whether due to a bankruptcy, a merger or a sale.
“We do a lot of detective work,” Ijadi-Maghsoodi said. “In order to find lost pensions, we conduct extensive research, review pension plan documents, file FOIA requests, write letters and make many phone calls.”
Language access can make it difficult for clients with limited English proficiency to receive the pension that they or a spouse earned. A 76-year-old widow called WSPAP after trying unsuccessfully for three months to get her small survivor benefit started. The woman, who was living on a small Social Security check, spoke very limited English. Before passing away, the widow’s husband had hand-written a letter for her to sign and submit to the plan in the event of his death to ensure that she would receive her survivor annuity. Her husband died in September but by late January, the plan had still not started her benefit — or even told her when it might start.
Attorney Ijadi-Maghsoodi intervened, asserting the client’s right to the survivor annuity and informing the plan that ignoring the widow’s claim for survivor benefits violated federal law. Within two weeks, the plan distributed a retroactive payment for the payments she should have received. In addition, she will receive a survivor annuity for the rest of her life.
After assisting hundreds of people with pension problems, the Western States Pension Assistance Project attorneys have a few tips:
- Keep all documents related to your pension or retirement savings account.
- Never destroy old tax records.
- Think carefully before taking a lump sum instead of a monthly pension.
- Do not give up your right to a survivor benefit through your spouse’s pension plan unless you have enough retirement income of your own to live comfortably after your spouse’s death.
For more tips and fact sheets, visit the Pension Rights Center online at www.pensionrights.org. For help with your pension, please contact the Western States Pension Assistance Project toll free at 866-413-4911.