By David Brandolph
The Pension Rights Center is the Resource Center providing legal and strategic assistance to a network of six Pension Counseling and Information projects that assists people in 31 states get the retirement plan benefits they’ve earned. Recently, PRC worked with Madeleine Tabor, an attorney with the Western States Pension Assistance Project to help a California woman get the pension survivor annuity benefits we think she deserves in a case with significant repercussions for domestic partner and civil union arrangements.
In the case, Karen Doty and Scott Noble were in a long-term relationship that was legally recognized in California as a domestic partnership. As domestic partners, Karen and Scott had the same rights, benefits and protections that California law gives to married spouses.
When Scott died in 2019, he was a participant in a pension plan that was now being administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Under ERISA, the statute governing private-sector pension plans, a spouse is entitled to a survivor annuity. The PBGC, however, said that Karen was not entitled to the survivor benefit, even though California treats domestic partnerships as the equivalent of a marriage and refers to domestic partners as “spouses.” The PBGC simply said the law doesn’t cover domestic partners.
We think the PBGC is wrong and the result is inequitable. Moreover, the question of whether a California domestic partner is a spouse has consequence beyond the question of whether Karen will receive a survivor annuity. One such example: whether a domestic partner on dissolution of the partnership can be awarded a share of her or his spouse’s pension.
Karen’s case is now on appeal with the PBGC. We are hopeful that the PBGC will reverses its position.
We have written a legal analysis of the issue in Karen Doty’s case, which you can access by clicking here.