Dear Newsweek, My mother, Dianne, was an employee of the New Jersey State Department of Labor for over 21 years. She retired effective January 1, 2014. My mother, my son, and I all moved to North Carolina that same month.

While she was completing her retirement paperwork, she had checked a clause that would reduce her pension check by 25 percent and be held by the pension department until her passing, and then that money would go to her beneficiary, which is me.

My mother passed away in October 2022. I informed the pension department and I asked them what I needed to do. They replied that I would just need to send them the original death certificate, and complete the paperwork that they would send me. When I got the paperwork, one of the documents they needed was her divorce decree. I looked through all my mother’s paperwork and there are no decrees from any of her three divorces. I have zero contact information on two of her ex-husbands and one is deceased.

woman upset death of mother
Stock image of a woman on the phone and an insert of a coffin. The woman has struggled to get the money left to her, after her mother’s death.
Getty Images

I called the pension department, and they told me to write a letter and maybe they would release the funds. Well, they didn’t, they just sent me another letter stating that they require the divorce decrees. So I called again. Again I was told to write a letter stating my circumstances.

My next call went to the governor’s office, where they told me that it sounds like a legal matter and I should hire an attorney. I then called the courthouse to see how I may be able to get the decrees. They told me that since my mother was deceased, I would have to request a hearing with a judge and then the judge will decide if I am worthy of getting the decrees.

My situation: I live and work in North Carolina. I have an 8-year-old car that can’t get out of its own way, I’m lucky it makes it to and from work. I literally live paycheck to paycheck and I do not have the extra money, nor do I have the time available at work to go to New Jersey and do all the things they say I need to do with zero guarantee that I will get the money that my mother specifically had set aside for me. The courthouse told me that it could take six to nine months just to get a hearing set.

In the meantime, I am broke and incredibly annoyed that the New Jersey pension department is doing absolutely nothing to try and give me any other options. The department has been accused in the past of corruption. Well, I am a witness to it. They are holding on to at least $28,000 of my mother’s money.

I would appreciate any help. I’m at my wit’s end and I’m broke.

Colleen, North Carolina

Newsweek’s “What Should I Do?” offers expert advice to readers. If you have a personal dilemma, let us know via life@newsweek.com. We can ask experts for advice on relationships, family, friends, money and work and your story could be featured on WSID at Newsweek.

Getting A Lawyer Will Speed Up The Process

Peter Hoglund is a financial adviser at the Wealth Enhancement Group.

I’m so sorry for your loss and for the frustration. You mentioned that the pension payout was set up to go to your mother’s beneficiary, but how was it written in the pension paperwork? That’s important. Even if her will listed you as her sole heir by name, if the pension was told something more generic, like “heirs,” this could be the initial problem.

This is common for pension and retirement benefit forms: without naming an individual it will default to the spouse and leave the interpretation up to the bureaucrats. She may have always meant it to go to you, but they need to be clear that you are officially the heir by removing everyone else that would be in line.

In divorce cases, many people forget to remove their previous spouses as beneficiaries after the divorce is finalized. In the case of New Jersey, state law allows for this omission by assuming the divorced spouse is “pre-deceased” for the purpose of the estate. This clears the way for children to become the next beneficiary. It sounds like the pension department needs to prove this in order to confirm that you are next in line.

For the court hearing, you may be able to claim travel hardship and set up a virtual hearing with the judge to plead your case and access the records. That would help with the ability to meet with the judge, but the timeline is going to be specific to the court and their caseload.

Unfortunately, you may need a lawyer to speed up the process. You may qualify for legal aid if you do not have the financial means to pay for the cost. Legal Services of New Jersey is a good resource to see if you qualify for pro bono legal assistance and if they will take your case.

You Will Likely Need a Court Order

Sarah Jacobs is a matrimonial and family law attorney and the co-founder of Jacobs Berger, LLC.

I am sorry to hear about the situation you are in. It can be hard to navigate the court system, especially when you aren’t the party involved.

Generally, the most efficient way to get a copy of the divorce decree you need is to contact the attorney who represented your mother and see if they can provide it for you. If this is not an option, you must obtain copies from the Superior Court.

Records for closed divorce are initially stored at the county court where the case was heard, though they are eventually moved to the Superior Court Clerk’s Office’s storage facility in Trenton, New Jersey. If the records are not there, you must contact the family division of the county where the divorce occurred.

Divorce records will usually be released to a party to the case or the attorney of record. It seems that you’re facing this issue, which means that you will likely need a court order directing the clerk to release the documents to a third party (you).

In most cases where the party is deceased, the executor or executrix of the estate can file a motion (in this case, one for each divorce case) to have the records released. The executor/executrix can find the required forms on NJCourts.gov, and they can also contact the county ombudsman for further assistance. It is possible to request a motion hearing by Zoom if you’re residing out of state.

To proceed by motion, you must know the county, docket number, and other parties’ names. If you have insufficient information to file a motion and do not know what else to do, it may be helpful to contact a New Jersey attorney to assist you.

Newsweek’s “What Should I Do?” offers expert advice to readers. If you have a personal dilemma, let us know via life@newsweek.com. We can ask experts for advice on relationships, family, friends, money and work and your story could be featured on WSID at Newsweek.

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