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Estate Planning Clinic Secures Survivor’s Benefits for Same-Sex Spouse

A year after Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) was found unconstitutional and almost four years after the Estate Planning Clinic of the Legal Services Center accepted the matter for representation, the Estate Planning Clinic has succeeded in helping a same-sex surviving spouse become entitled to survivor’s benefits.

Norman J. Laurin and his late husband, Danny R. Wood, were legally married when Wood passed away in March 2010. When Laurin tried to collect survivor benefits on Wood’s ERISA-mandated pension, the pension management company refused to recognize the marriage. The company, PBGC, denied Laurin’s claim on the grounds that as a federal agency, Section 3 of DOMA which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prevented PBGC from providing a qualified preretirement survivor annuity (“QPSA”) to Laurin, as preretirement survivor annuities are only payable to surviving spouses and a QPSA was the only benefit available to Laurin according to the PBGC since no retirement benefits had begun prior to Wood’s death.  Essentially, PBGC said that since the federal government didn’t recognize Laurin’s and Wood’s marriage, despite the fact that Massachusetts recognized their marriage, Laurin would receive nothing by way of benefits from Wood’s 35 years with his company.  In addition, PBGC stated that since Wood had not completed an application for retirement benefits before his death, which would have allowed any beneficiary to succeed to such benefits upon his subsequent death, Laurin would not be entitled to any retirement benefits of any kind from Wood’s service with his company.  Unwilling to accept this result, Laurin wished to appeal PBGC’s decision

When the Estate Planning Clinic took the case in 2010 and when PBGC finally issued its final determination denying Laurin benefits, it was impossible to know if DOMA would be found unconstitutional. Accordingly, Tamara Kolz Griffin, Clinical Instructor at the Estate Planning Clinic, and her students presented both procedural and constitutional arguments in their appeal brief to PBGC in an attempt to secure benefits for Laurin on any grounds possible.  While securing benefits based upon the unconstitutionality of DOMA would have more far-reaching effects for other similarly situated same-sex couples, successfully attacking the procedural mistake by PBGC in sending Wood’s requested retirement application to the wrong address, thereby thwarting his attempt to apply for retirement benefits prior to his death, could secure benefits for Laurin without recognizing his marriage to Wood.

In drafting the appeal, the Estate Planning Clinic first contended that PBGC failed to mail a requested application for benefits to the correct address. Were it not for the mistake, Wood could have timely filed his application, which would have resulted in Laurin’s ability to receive such benefits upon Wood’s death as Wood’s named beneficiary. Second, the Clinic contended that DOMA was unconstitutional, and that as the legally recognized same-sex spouse of Wood under Massachusetts law, Laurin should be entitled to the qualified preretirement survivor’s annuity as the surviving spouse.  The Clinic set forth both arguments to improve the chance of success on the merits for Laurin.

“Constitutionality is an exciting issue. It’s sexy, and everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, so it’s easy to just want to focus on that one issue. But as exciting and interesting as it is, you have to do what’s right for your client,” Kolz Griffin said.

For the client, the right thing was to not just focus on the constitutional question but to attack PBGC’s determination on any and all available grounds.

The appeal, submitted in 2012, was still pending when Windsor v. U.S. was decided in June 2013, striking down Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional. But the Estate Planning Clinic’s work was not yet done. As PBGC deliberated on how to apply the Windsor decision to its pre-existing cases, students at the Clinic remained vigilant, regularly checking in with the company for updates, pushing forward in the process, and keeping the client informed.  The process was protracted because in the absence of guidance, PBGC did not know how to process the requested benefits to which Laurin should be entitled.

Finally, in July 2014, PBGC issued a corrected benefit determination recognizing Laurin as the surviving spouse of Wood and extending benefits to him. The reissued benefit determination extended a qualified preretirement survivor annuity to Laurin with interest retroactive to Wood’s date of death.  The anticipated value of such decision is estimated to be approximately $100,000.  When informed of PBGC’s final decision, Laurin was “shocked but delighted,” Kolz Griffin said.  It had been a long road, but justice had prevailed.

But the client was not the only person to benefit from the case. Eight students worked with Laurin, ferreting out legal issues, finding support for the arguments, drafting the appeal brief, and strategizing about procedural matters. In the process, students learned first-hand about dealing with issues like constitutionality and first impression.  Students also learned that perseverance can be just as important as a strong legal argument in a matter that extended over four years before reaching its final resolution.

“We couldn’t have done it without the students,” Kolz Griffin said. “Their contributions were so incredibly valuable, not just because of the many hours they contributed and the commitment they made, but also because of the valuable perspective they contributed on how the tasks and goals should be accomplished.”

Ultimately, the Clinic hopes that winning Laurin’s case can help other same-sex spouses gain the benefits they rightfully deserve as well.

“It’s always gratifying to take cases that have the potential for a positive result for not just the client but also the community, allowing us to achieve a greater impact with each case we take. By serving one client who is representative of many, we achieve a greater good with each success,” Kolz Griffin said.

-Ellis Liang