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What happens to the pension when the pensioner disappears into thin air?

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The Supreme Court of Canada recently agreed to hear an appeal of a Quebec case that deals with the obligations and rights of a pension plan administrator when a pensioner goes missing.

The facts are unique.  A 77-year-old retired university professor went for a walk one crisp autumn day and never returned.  He had been receiving a pension of approximately $7,000 per month from his former employer, Carleton University.  The type of pension that he had chosen to receive was a “life only” pension, meaning it would be paid only to him during his lifetime, with nothing left to his heirs or estate.

A ten-day police search found no trace of him.  When Carleton University found out that he was missing, it wanted to stop the pension payments.  But the professor’s former partner, heir and property administrator objected, pointing to the Quebec law that presumed him to be alive, until he can be declared dead after being missing for seven years.  So the University continued to make the pension payments.

Five years later the professor’s body was discovered in dense woods not far from his home.  A coroner concluded that his death was accidental, and that he had died shortly after going on that fateful walk.

The University had paid almost half a million dollars in pension benefits, from the date he went missing to the date his body was found.  The University wanted that money back.  It sued the professor’s former partner for reimbursement.

A Quebec Superior Court judge, and the Quebec Court of Appeal, agreed with the University.  They said that the University had been correct to continue the monthly pension payments for the five years that the pensioner was missing, because the pensioner was presumed to be alive then.  However, once the date of death was determined, the University was also correct to claim reimbursement of the pension payments that were made after the pensioner died.  The University had a retroactive entitlement to be reimbursed, in circumstances where no one did anything wrong.

The Supreme Court of Canada will have the last word on this sad and interesting case.