Late last year, Vicki and Dale Lloyd opted to begin receiving pension benefits after 57-year-old Dale was diagnosed with cancer. After careful consideration the pair decided that a 75 percent distribution was the best option to meet their financial needs.
Four days before the approved payments were to begin, Dale Lloyd succumbed to his illness. After Vicki Lloyd reported her husband's death, pension provider Altria sent a letter lowering the widow's payments to 50 percent.
"I felt it was one more blow," the mother of four, told ABCNews. "It seemed like here you are dealing with the hardest thing in your life and there's one more piece of bad news on top of the other."
The company wrote in a letter to the part-time special needs instructor that her benefits had been re-evaluated and the payments now be 50 percent.
After a thorough web search, Lloyd's daughter-in-law directed her to the Western States Pension Assistance Project. For the seven months it took for the nonprofit organization to help her restore the benefits to 75 percent, she received no money from the pension plan that her husband had earned after working for about 17 years at Mission Viejo Company, which was once owned by Philip Morris Inc. Meanwhile, mortgage payments were due.
The organization, operated by attorney Justin Freeborn and a staff of two, handled Lloyd's case and 500 others last year. This is up from the 300 to 400 cases in previous years.
"It really helped me because I'm trying to keep my head above the water with paying for the house. It was a Godsend," said . Lloyd.
"The company was notified, investigated and resolved the situation," said a spokesperson for Altria.
Funded by the federal government, the organization helps individuals understand complicated pension laws, address pension miscalculations, track down pensions and assist with retirement benefits that were denied.
Peggy Murray is another pension seeker who needed help. In 2002, Murray was laid off from Acme Markets after working for that company for 27 years. In 2009, at the age of 65, the current Wal-Mart stocker was awaiting a check from the pension she was expected to receive but it did not arrive.
"I started calling around trying to find it," says Murray, who believed she was being given the runaround. With the help of the New England Pension Assistance Project, Murray was able to begin the year and a half process of tracking her money down from the company that went bankrupt.
"I felt bad. It made me mad," says Murray, who is still working long hours to make a living. "That was my money. I had put all those years in. If I only received a dollar, it was my money."
In December 2010, Murray received her first payment, but is still working with New England organization to recover payments back to June 2009.
"The process is really one of tracking down," said Grace Healey, a coordinator of outreach and communication for the New England Pension Assistance Project. "It's really detective work when you're looking for a lost pension. You can go many, many different roads before you hit the right one."
In 2011, The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation was holding $265 million in unclaimed pension benefits for 37,500 people owed money from terminated defined benefit pension plans. The claims ranged from 27 cents to $690,000. The average amount of unclaimed benefits is $8,000.
With many resources at its disposal, the organization even helps Americans who are targeted by pension companies claiming that the retirees were paid more than they were due.
"Pension plans are really squeezed with the economy going down, so we see pension plans going after clients for over payment," says Freeborn. "We will work with clients to see if there is overpayment."
ABCNews.com compiled a list of regional offices to call for questions about your pension. "We know the law, we know these cases, and we can quickly listen to work history and know the chances [of success]," says Freeborn.
How to contact one of the six regional pension offices:
Mid-America Pension Rights Project:
Michigan/Ohio Pension Rights Office: 866-735-7737 Areas: Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee. Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania
Mid-Atlantic Pension Counseling Project:
New York Pension Rights Office: 800-355-7714 Areas: New Jersey and New York
New England Pension Assistance Project:
Pension Rights Office: 617-287-7307 or 888-425-6067 Areas: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
South Central Pension Rights Project:
Pension Rights Office: 800-443-2528 Areas: Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas
Upper Midwest Pension Rights Project:
Pension Rights Office: 866-783-5021 Areas: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin Pension Rights Office: 800-992-8161/ 515-282-8161 Areas: Iowa
Western States Pension Assistance Project:
Pension Rights Office: 866-413-49-11 Areas: Arizona, California, Nevada and Hawaii
The six projects were established in 1992 by the Older Americans Act to provide legal counsel to areas throughout the country. The individuals seeking help for pension information can be any age.
Other Great Resources:
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is the insurer of more than 27,000 pension plans sponsored by the private sector. The plans are responsible for coverage for 44 million individuals. The corporation operates a missing participants list that allows users to search for unclaimed pension funds online.