SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Imagine you were owed more than $20,000 and were terminally ill.
That’s the case for a 70-year-old Air Force Veteran who has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
The money she is owed is tied up in the Federal Office of Personnel Management in Washington D.C.
Our KELOLAND News Investigation cuts through the bureaucratic red tape for answers.
After more than a decade of marriage, Carolynne Pederson and Leon Messler divorced in 2013. Pederson helped put Messler through nursing school, and he got a job with the federal government at the Sioux Falls VA hospital.
As part of their divorce settlement, Pederson was awarded $30,000 from Leon’s Thrift Savings Plan Account.
“I did get that amount right away, they cut a check and sent that portion to me,” Pederson said.
At the time of their divorce, Pederson was also awarded $21,000 from Messler’s Federal Employment Retirement System account. The Court ordered an immediate payment in one lump sum. That never happened.
Angela Kennecke: Have you been trying to get this money since 2013?
What this Air Force Veterans didn’t realize was that federal law trumped that court order.
According the United States Office of Personnel Management, Court Ordered Benefits for Former Spouses Handbook, “Court orders cannot affect a retirement benefit until the benefit is actually payable to the former federal employee.”
In 2017, The Office of Personnel Management acknowledged to Pederson that it “approved her application for a portion of her former spouse’s Federal retirement benefit.” The letter says she would receive the money in installments once Messler started receiving his benefit.
“So he did retire,” Pederson said.
Pederson says that was in December of 2018. She figured she would get a payment right away.
Now that money has become critical.
In 2016, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and given three to five weeks to live.
“Once you get diagnosis with stage four cancer, you’re not always able to work and take care of yourself. So I was hoping to get that $21,000. Not that it would float your boat by any means, but it would keep you going a little bit,” Pederson said.
Pederson has been participating in clinical trials in Washington, D.C. and has incurred expenses from traveling. She is also trying to spend her final days with her family and grandchildren who live across the country. Her daughter has moved in to help care for her.
“We’ll she’s not guaranteed tomorrow,” Sullivan said.
Kristi Sullivan is helping her mom get her affairs in order. But when she called the Federal Office of Personnel Management on her mother’s behalf, she didn’t get very far.
“They just basically said it’s a system and it has to go through the system. It can take six months to a year and no real answer, just kind of leave you hanging,” Sullivan said.
For Pederson the matter is even more urgent because if she dies, the money will not go to her heirs.
Angela Kennecke: So tell me why you haven’t gotten the money?
Pederson: That’s what I’m hoping you can help me with.
KELOLAND Investigates contacted the Office of Personnel Management and we waited more than a week for an answer.
A spokesperson then told us following our inquiry that ” OPM’s Retirement Services team is in the process of contacting Ms. Pederson and coming to a solution on her receiving payment.”
“They don’t treat them as a person. It’s another case. It’s a folder. That’s what I told her and when her folder gets opened, that’s when they’ll start reacting,” Sullivan said.
In the meantime, Pederson is growing weary of dealing with the bureaucracy of the federal government.
“I don’t want to get up every day and think about that. I have other things I want to do. I have end of life things I want to do. I would like to be putting together little stories for grandkids. There’s a lot of other things I want to do rather than taking care of this, at the end,” Pederson said.
Pederson has also filed a case report with Senator John Thune’s office, hoping he might be able to help speed up the process with the feds.
She says Thune’s office has been in contact with the OPM. KELOLAND Investigates will continue to follow this case and will let you know what happens.