I am hoping the board can provide some further insight / advice on a TIAA-CREF pension case involving my deceased father.
My parents married in 1970 in Pennsylvania. After their wedding, they moved to Chicago, IL where my sister and I were born and raised – briefly.
In 1978, my parents separated. My mother retuned to her childhood home in Coraopolis, a small suburb outside Pittsburgh and my father headed west to California.
That year, in California, my father was employed for a time by Stanford Research Lab. In this position, he established a retirement/pension account with TIAA-CREF.
On September 19, 1984, my mother was granted a divorce from my father. As part of the divorce, my father was ordered to pay child support. Regrettably, outside of a few token payments, his total arrearage grew to approximately $22,000 by the time my sister and I reached legal age (18).
On October 28, 2009, my mother was notified via a letter from TIAA-CREF that my father died on April 6, 2008.
We were instructed to provide a copy of his death certificate to start the process of “transferring ownership of X’s retirement accounts to the appropriate beneficiaries”.
We forwarded this document and later placed a follow-up call to learn of the status of the transfer. We were advised that my mother was in fact the designated beneficiary.
On November 23, 2009, TIAA-CREF requested a copy of the divorce decree. My mother’s divorce decree DOES NOT forfeit or divest her rights to marital property or assign away any future claims.
My father never re-married.
We were contacted on December 24, 2009 and were advised again that my mother was the designated beneficiary. We were also told that the account could be transferred to her to minimize tax liability and the amount of the account at my father’s death – approximately $56,000.
We were told my mother would receive a “forms package” in the mail by the end of year.
As of January 12, 2010, no documents had been received by my mother so we consequently placed a follow-up call into TIAA-CREF for an update.
During this call on January 13, 2010, we were advised that after a legal review my mother, although the designated beneficiary WOULD NOT be eligible to receive the funds since her divorce was in Pennslyvania. The following Pennsylvania statute: 20 PA. Con. STAT. 3102.
The TIAA-CREF representative indicated that our next best step would be to contact an attorney with experience in divorce/probate issues and to file a claim. Naturally, we intend to as soon as possible.
After some preliminary internet searching, I discovered the January 2009 Supreme Court case of last year: Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for the DuPont Savings & Investment Plan which seems very pertinent to my mother’s case.
This case indicates that ERISA requires plan administrators to follow the terms of lawful plan documents, no divorce decree or state law can override the specific terms of the plan. My mother’s case seems very similar if not stronger in that she DID NOT assign/divest her rights and no change was ever made to her status as the designated beneficiary.
Obviously, we are contacting/interviewing attorneys now. However, given my recounting of the facts – are we “on the right stack of mail”? Does our claim seem valid and likely to prevail?
What should we expect?
What tone/form should the letter take? Should it reference the Kennedy case?
Any other tips / advice?
Thanks again for any advice or input.