Imagine this scenario: You’ve left your employer to begin retirement, but something’s not quite right concerning your pension or 401(k). Maybe it looks like the pension has been miscalculated. Or you think you’re due retirement benefits, but your employer disagrees. Or you should be receiving a pension from a previous employer, but the checks haven’t arrived.
Where do you turn for help?
My suggestion: The U.S. Administration on Aging Pension Counseling and Information Program. It runs the free pension counseling projects program offered by nonprofit groups in 30 states, in conjunction with the Pension Rights Center in Washington, D.C. The counselors can answer questions you have about retirement benefits laws; facilitate communication with a recalcitrant pension plan administrator; verify retirement benefit calculations; explain your pension rights in a divorce and even help you appeal adverse decisions concerning your retirement plan.
(MORE: How to File a Claim From Your Retirement Plan)
Sure, you could try hiring an employment attorney, but the cost could be prohibitive, especially if you’re on a fixed budget. What’s more, some lawyers would decline your request, determining that the case wouldn’t be worth their time.
“An extra $100 a month makes a world of difference to a low-income retiree, but it is likely too small an award to convince a lawyer in private practice to take the case,” says Rebecca Davis, director of the Pension Rights Center’s National Pension Assistance Resource Center.
Millions Recovered by the Program
This 20-year-old pension counseling projects program has helped thousands of Americans recover millions of dollars in retirement benefits.
For example, Vicki Lloyd of Orange County, Calif. will now receive a monthly $200 survivor’s benefit for the rest of her life, thanks to the Western States Pension Assistance Project, part of the personal counseling projects program. Lloyd was told by her late husband's employer that she was not eligible to receive his pension because he hadn’t retired before dying of a terminal illness at 57. One of the program's attorneys then sent a letter telling the pension plan that failing to honor the joint-and-survivor annuity benefit that Vicki's husband had selected would violate an Internal Revenue Code requirement that pension plans honor participant benefit elections.
Heightened Demand for the Help
The need for this type of legal counseling has never been greater. “Retirement plans have become more complicated,” says Davis. “And corporate restructuring, mergers and bankruptcies exacerbated by the recent recession can complicate pension claims even further.”
As Mark Miller recently wrote in his article “How to Find A Lost Pension,” the odds of record-keeping errors have grown because companies are increasingly changing hands and their pension plan sponsors have trouble tracking down former workers.
Who Is Eligible for Assistance
If your former company or retirement plan is headquartered or has offices in one of the 30 states with pension counseling projects, or you lived there while earning the pension or 401(k), you’re eligible to get free assistance. Go to the pension counseling project’s website for the list of states and contact information.
Davis says that many people don’t realize they have pension problems until they’re ready to retire and start claiming benefits.
How to Avoid a Pension Problem
To avoid an unpleasant surprise, keep tabs on your employer-sponsored retirement plans and hold onto all the paperwork you receive (such as annual Summary Plan Descriptions). That way, you’ll be up to speed when retirement rolls around.
The Pension Rights Center has a useful fact sheet, Tips for Keeping Track of Your Pension, that will also help. I urge you to get it so you'll be sure to receive every penny of retirement income that you're due.