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The Million-Dollar Clerical Error

When Bruce Friedman's wife, Anne, died suddenly of a heart attack in September 2001, he was summarily passed over for her $900,000 pension because of a technicality. The problem? His wife's beneficiary paperwork indicated that in the case of death, her pension should go to her closest living relative.

All good so far, right? The problem was that Anne assumed her husband was that person.

She would have been correct if -- as she and her husband were repeatedly told -- there had been no beneficiary designation form on file. (Under New York state law, a spouse is considered the closest relative on record.) Only in the Friedmans' case, a forgotten beneficiary form filed in 1974 -- four years before the couple first met on a blind date -- trumped their true wishes.

Instead of Friedman, her husband of nearly two decades, Anne's entire pension fund of nearly $1 million was left to her sister.

Friedman took his case to court, arguing that his wife was regularly sent account updates indicating that there was no beneficiary record on file. But the court would not hear his tale of 11th-hour paperwork woe.

The tale of profound personal and financial loss was enough to catch the attention of the tabloids. The New York Post called it a "Pension Pickle," though if the copywriters had used "Rampant Pension Pickle," it would hardly have been an exaggeration. A survey by Findlaw.com found that 57% of Americans do not have a legal will, sparking the question of how many workers have outdated -- or missing -- beneficiary documentation on file.

It's relatively easy to prepare for most of life's financial catastrophes, and there's even a form that can help you leave loved ones with some personal parting thoughts.

But if you haven't had a heart-to-heart with your family about your final wishes, and then double- and triple-checked the paperwork to make sure your wishes will actually be carried out, do it now. It may seem clinical and clerical, but it could be a million-dollar love letter to the important people in your life.


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