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Spouses should have a say in whether survivor benefits will be provided

Spouses Should Have a Say in Whether Survivor Benefits Will Be Provided

A recent New York Post article drew attention to a widow facing a tragic situation. Her husband, a retired police officer, had taken his own life. Without going into the grisly details of the case, her husband wanted to cause his wife as much pain as possible. Three weeks before his suicide, the retiree changed his retirement papers so that his wife wouldn’t receive the pension that he had previously said she should receive. He made this change without telling his wife, hoping to leave her destitute. 

The retiree would not have been able to make this kind of change if he had been receiving his retirement benefits from a private pension plan. Private-sector plans have safeguards in place that require a spouse to agree if a married worker wants to give up survivor protection for a wife or husband. Unfortunately, many government pension plans have no such safeguards. Married workers in these plans can deny their spouse a survivor’s benefit without the spouse’s knowledge or consent. As detailed in our fact sheet, there are 19 states in the country in which spouses have no say in whether they will receive a survivor pension. 

Fortunately, the widow will be getting a benefit, but not due to a change in the law. Instead, she can thank a series of New York Post articles resulting in “a flurry of calls” by Post readers to New York State Comptroller. The Post reported that staff in the Comptroller’s office “found a way to make it right.” 

They discovered that the retiree’s amended retirement forms had not yet been processed by the retirement system. This administrative delay will make it possible for the widow to receive a lump sum death benefit in the amount of $300,000. 

This tragic case illustrates in a most extreme way why a spouse’s consent should be required before a worker is allowed to waive survivor benefits. We urge New York State lawmakers – and legislators in the other 18 states – to close this loophole and join the 31 states that require spousal consent on pension benefit election forms.

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