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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

A paperwork glitch cuts a widow’s pension payment nearly in half

Darlene Lamusta said of her husband: “He used to say, ‘Darling, don’t worry. I’ve got a good pension.’ ”
Darlene Lamusta said of her husband: “He used to say, ‘Darling, don’t worry. I’ve got a good pension.’ ”Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Darlene and Mark Lamusta met in high school in the 1970s, married, had kids, and built a life together.

“It was a normal life,” Darlene said last week. “You go to work, pay your bills, raise your kids. You do what you have to do.”

By 2018, the Lamustas had begun to look forward to retirement. Mark, 61, had worked for decades handling baggage and other duties at Logan Airport. It was demanding, physical work. But it came with the promise of a decent pension from the machinists union, which represents airline workers.

But now, two years later, Darlene, 61, is alone, her husband struck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis within months of the shocking diagnosis in August 2018. And Mark’s pension? She feels cheated out of that, too, or at least a large portion of it.

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“He did everything for us,” Darlene said of her late husband. “He used to say, ‘Darling, don’t worry. I’ve got a good pension.’ ”

“If he knew what happened to it, he’d be very upset,” Darlene said.

What happened is a $400-a-month cut in the pension Darlene is receiving as Mark’s surviving spouse. And why? Because the folks who run the pension fund in Washington missed a paperwork deadline.

If the decision stands, Darlene will lose more than $120,000 over 25 years (assuming she lives to age 86) — money Mark earned driving baggage carts around the tarmac in the predawn dark in all kinds of weather.

Suddenly incapacitated by the deadly degenerative neurological disease, Mark filed for a disability retirement with the pension fund on Sep. 12, 2018. The pension fund’s own rules say it must process the paperwork for preliminary approval within 45 days. Instead, the fund took 78 days. And by the time the paperwork was completed Mark was in the hospital, on an oxygen machine, too sick to take the final, critical step: selecting how much of his monthly pension would go to Darlene after he died.

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The machinists’ pension fund gives married retirees three options for the amount a surviving spouse will receive, the most generous being the 100 percent survivor benefit. Mark qualified for a pension of about $1,100 a month from the machinists union. In his case, a 100 percent designation would have lowered his monthly pension from $1,100 to $900 to ensure that his wife would continue receiving $900 each month after he died.

But the selection couldn’t be made until the application was preliminarily approved.

If Mark died without making a designation for his surviving spouse, Darlene would still get a monthly payment, but it would be based on the pension fund’s default selection for surviving spouses — which would cut the amount Darlene received by $400 a month.

(Mark also qualified for a separate pension from one of the airlines for an earlier period of work at the airport; that was handled without complication.)

Few married retirees take the full monthly amount owed to them. Instead, most accept a lower amount to allow their spouse to continue receiving payments after they die.

The Lamustas quickly assembled the documentation they needed to file for Mark’s pension and received confirmation from the pension fund that it had been accepted on Sept. 12, 2018. That meant that the pension fund had to act by Oct. 29.

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In the weeks that followed, Mark called the fund asking for the status of his application and pointing out the urgency of the situation. He was told the fund had everything it needed, Darlene said.

Finally, on Nov. 29 — a month after its deadline — the pension fund gave notice it had processed the preliminary application. But by then Mark was on his death bed and he never got the chance to make the 100 percent designation on behalf of his wife of 45 years.

In the absence of a selection by Mark, the pension fund inserted its standard default selection: a 50 percent survivor benefit. That would give Mark a $1,000 a month pension while he was still alive, but only half that amount — $500 — would go to Darlene after he died.

Darlene wound up at the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a free legal clinic dedicated to helping people find and get pension benefits they are owed.

“They did everything right,” Anna-Marie Tabor, director of the pension center, said of the Lamustas. “But they were treated like just a name on a spreadsheet.”

Tabor, a lawyer, filed an eight-page appeal to the pension fund on behalf of Darlene in September. She got back a four-paragraph denial, which ignored Tabor’s contention that the pension fund was to blame for the financial harm to Darlene “as she attempts to rebuild her life.”

The pension fund wrote in its reply to Tabor that its decision was final. But a fund representative last week told me final was not final.

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In fact, the Lamusta case is being reviewed, along with some others, he said. The representative declined to answer questions, but he did seem to offer a glimmer of hope that the fund will come to its senses and reverse what looks like a blatantly unfair and cold-hearted decision.


Contact me with your consumer issue at sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow me on Twitter @spmurphyboston.