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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

An annuity check arrived every month for nearly 40 years. Then it ‘just disappeared’

“It just disappeared,” David Lettvin, Denise Lettvin’s husband, said of her John Hancock monthly annuity. “We had no idea why.”Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Before her death, Marjorie Kiernan gathered her two grown daughters and told them she had funded annuities for each of them.

It was a clever and much appreciated way for Kiernan to connect them to her memory for the rest of their lives.

That was nearly 40 years ago. And until recently, on the first of every month, Denise Lettvin received $59.76 directly deposited into her checking account.

Her annuity was supposed to go on for as long as she lived. That’s how annuities work.

But last year it stopped, without a single word from the insurance company that managed it, John Hancock.


No notice in the mail, no call, no e-mail. And no more $59.76 monthly deposits.

“It just disappeared,” said David Lettvin, Denise’s husband. “We had no idea why.”

It was obvious to Denise (“Hello, I’m still here”) that John Hancock had made a mistake.

Denise didn’t realize until last month that the monthly annuity payments had stopped a year ago. The Lettvins didn’t overlook this modest amount of income because they are wealthy. Denise had gone months without checking her bank statements because, she said, her life had gotten hectic, including her sister’s death in 2017.

So Denise, 72, and David, 70, called John Hancock to get it corrected. They gave the company the names and Social Security numbers of Denise, her sister, and her mother, plus other data.

And then, after what the Lettvins assumed was an exhaustive check of company records, John Hancock told Denise that neither she nor her annuity could be found — after she had received some 450 consecutive monthly payments from the company.

Talk about a black hole.

Denise and David, a retired artist and a retired technical writer, live on Social Security benefits in the ranch-style house in South Hamilton that her parents left to her and her sister, another legacy of her mother, an elementary school teacher, and her father, a military officer.


When Denise finally did check her bank statements, what first grabbed her attention was a curious line: “WITHDRAWAL JH USA,” followed by “-$59.76.”

Obviously, that was a debit to her account. But “JH” was supposed to deposit $59.76 monthly, not withdraw it. In fact, in that same month, John Hancock had debited her account twice for the same amount — related to an annuity it says does not exist.

She and David concluded that John Hancock, for whatever reason, had (wrongly) terminated her annuity and later determined that it had let the payments continue for two months after the termination. It then debited her account to get the money back.

I’m not going to bore you with all the details of the fight Denise and David put up in the last month. There were lots of calls, lots of transfers to other departments, lots of “I’m sorrys,” as in “I’m sorry (please, please stop calling).”

When they could think of nothing else, David typed “consumer” and “advocate” into Google and found my name.

Think about this: John Hancock insisted it had no record of Denise’s annuity. Yet, when I called on her behalf, it took the company about 24 hours to find the annuity and bring it back to life. The company quickly promised a refund (with interest) and mailed a letter of apology. In addition, John Hancock released a statement to me in which it took responsibility for its administrative “processing” mistakes and noted (weakly, I think) that it pays “billions of dollars in benefits every year to millions of customers with very few errors.”


A couple days later, I visited Denise and asked about her mother, who had set all this in motion four decades ago.

Denise said she was an excellent mother, “kind-hearted,” but also determined that her daughters would adhere to certain standards of conduct.

“She was a big one for good manners,” Denise recalled, smiling at the memory.

The money for the two annuities had been intended for Denise’s mother’s retirement. But she died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at age 64.

“It wasn’t a lot of money, really,” Denise said of the annuity. “But it connected me to my mother.”

Now it still does, Denise.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.