Team 12 Investigates: LI woman waiting months for loved one's death benefits shares what other families can learn
Jessica Desposito is still coping with the loss of her fiancé, Michael, who died of cancer in September 2021. The couple met in high school in Setauket and lived separate lives after graduation. Twelve years ago, fate would bring them together again to build a new life together.
They talked about the future, and though end-of-life planning can be a difficult conversation, they both wanted their families taken care of and knew each other's wishes. Desposito would be Michael's power of attorney and his parents were the primary beneficiaries.
Even with all that planning, Michael's death seemed sudden. Two months before he passed away, the couple had been riding bikes together.
"It was devastating," Desposito, of Selden, said. "I lost my best friend."
Michael had been a state worker for 30 years, but it would take his family more than a year to collect his death benefits.
In emails with case managers from the New York State and Local Retirement System in the Comptroller's Office, Desposito was told it would take 10 to 14 days to enter Michael's death certificate into the system.
Four months later, another email read "A death review case has been opened for Michael."
"You're grieving, but at the same time you have this hanging over you. It just adds to the grief and the frustration," Desposito said.
She and Michael's parents continued to follow up about Michael's case, but the only answer they received was that his case was "under review." The back and forth went on for nearly a year and a half.
Fearing she had exhausted all other options, Desposito contacted Team 12 Investigates for help.
News 12 reached out to the NYS Comptroller's Office about Michael's case. After their review, a department spokesperson said they discovered that Michael's application for disability retirement benefits affected his pending death benefits.
"Thank you for reaching out to us about this matter. Our office will continue to monitor this situation and will work to ensure that Mr. Desposito's beneficiary(ies) receive what they are entitled to," the spokesperson said in an email.
The next day, Michael's parents received the email they had been waiting for that explained the options for claiming his death benefit and a sincere apology for the delay.
"I was ecstatic. I was so happy, so happy," Desposito said. "One phone call from News 12, got whatever I've been doing for 14 months, got it done for them."
According to the comptroller's office, Michael's case is "somewhat unique" and customer service employees are usually slammed as tax season approaches. The office also just did a system upgrade and processed a substantial number of retirements.
Attorney Ann-Margaret Carrozza—whose practice includes elder law and estate planning—told Team 12 Investigates that the process of receiving death benefits should only take about eight to 12 weeks.
"When it goes beyond that, we know there's a problem," said Carrozza, who is also a former New York State Representative. "One of the biggest reasons for a delay in a beneficiary claiming benefits is, if someone else is trying to help them and they have every good intention in the world, but they don't have a valid designated power of attorney for the named beneficiary, now the plan administrator in many cases wants to be very careful."
To prepare for end-of-life situations, Carrozza recommends reviewing your beneficiaries every year. If parents are listed as primary beneficiaries, but are moved to a nursing home, that nursing home would be entitled to their assets.
She suggests designating a trust, especially if you plan to list a minor as a primary beneficiary. In New York, a minor cannot inherit assets so the court would appoint a guardian to take control of the funds.
Carrozza also advises against relying on third parties, such as plan administrators or banks, for documentation. Engaged couples are especially vulnerable when it comes to asset protection because they have no legal protection unless couples put their wishes in writing.
"Here on Long Island, where we have a lot of bank acquisitions and mergers, it is very common for the new financial institution to lose the beneficiary designation," Carrozza added. "So we definitely want to keep a copy of it."
Desposito is hoping her story will help others who may be dealing with difficult end-of-life planning and she is grateful to finally put this chapter of hers to rest.
"I think for all of us it's a closure," Desposito said.
A spokesperson for the state comptroller's office told Team 12 Investigates that if someone does not hear from them or has difficulty getting in touch with customer service representatives, to contact their communication's office or call their general number at 518-474-4040.