By Emily Gilbert
Last month, USA Today published an article about Libby Leask, a woman who had just been forced to put her house on the market after being denied a survivor benefit from her late husband’s pension plan.
Before his death in 2016, Steven Leask worked at, and earned a pension from, New Mexico State University, which he calculated to be worth nearly a million dollars. Libby, who has multiple sclerosis, was relying on that money to support her for the rest of her life.
When her husband suddenly passed away, Libby contacted the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board (ERB) to start receiving her share of husband’s pension. The ERB told her that they could not pay her the benefit because they could not find a form in their files saying that she was her husband’s designated beneficiary.
Under private pension plans and most federal retirement systems, a surviving spouse is automatically designated the beneficiary of a pension benefit, unless he or she gives up that right. But state, city, county and town government plans are not subject to the same rules. Although most state-wide retirement plans have automatic protections for widows and widowers, many other smaller government plans, like the ERB and plans for police officers and firefighters, do not.
After the article was published, “over a thousand NMSU employees contacted the ERB about their own accounts — and many of them discovered their own beneficiary designations were missing,” said a follow-up from reporter Algernon D’Ammassa, who had written the original story about Libby for the Las Cruces Sun-News.
His first article had also caught the attention of members of the New Mexico State Senate. With the assistance of the executive director of the ERB, legislation was drafted that will allow the ERB to make a spouse or domestic partner the beneficiary of a benefit if the ERB member dies without a valid beneficiary designation on file. This week, we learned that the bill passed the New Mexico House and Senate, and now is headed to the Governor’s desk for her signature. It took two years, but Libby Leask will receive her survivor benefit!
Because Libby Leask fought so hard for the pension benefit she knew she deserved, and because Algernon D’Ammassa helped her tell her story, the law will now protect the spouses of all ERB members.
This story is a good reminder for anyone who works in the public sector— and their spouses – to be sure to check retirement plan rules about survivor benefits. It is also a good reminder that, as the Pension Rights Center has learned time and again over the past four decades, when it comes to pensions, persistence can pay off.