HLSVia the WilmerHale Legal Services Center

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.

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