The Ombudsman Pensions was established 25 years ago. What kind of issues does this mediator address? Henriëtte de Lange, the current Ombudsman Pensions, on complaints of pensioners and employees, and what you should do if you cannot solve the problem with your pension fund.
Most people have arranged their pension well. At least, that’s what they think. Things still go wrong sometimes. You are paid a lower pension than expected. Your pension accrual is stalled, without your knowledge, because you suddenly cannot work anymore after you had an accident. Or the partner is unexpectedly not entitled to survivor’s pension as a cohabitation contract was never signed. Those issues are nasty and have major consequences. According to the rules, the pension fund is often right by law in these types of cases, but the employee or the pensioner was not or insufficiently informed. In that case it is possible to file a complaint. And what if that comes to nothing? You can contact the Ombudsman Pensions, free of charge. He or she will then - if possible - mediate, look for a solution and try to bring both parties closer together.
Age with dignity
That Ombudsman is Henriëtte de Lange. A passionate pension lawyer who has been working in the pension industry for 25 years with great satisfaction. Her office is in The Hague, in the SER building. Her guiding principle is the statement she once heard during a congress on pensions: “A pension contributes to aging with dignity.” She adds: “You maintain control of your own life when you have a good pension. Even if you are no longer able to work.”
In her own words, De Lange is genetically affected with her enormous interest in pensions. Her father used to be a professor in Pension Law, and as a child she was already taught the importance of pension. “A long time ago, the church took care of you, or your children. These days, you are the one responsible for becoming self-sufficient in your old age.”
Informing employees on time
Many employees show little interest in their future pension. That’s something ‘to think about later on’. Most people only give some thought to their pension when it is almost time to retire. De Lange: “That has always been incomprehensible to me. Everyone gets nervous when the price of petrol increases with three cents, but people rarely have any idea about their monthly contribution to their pension payment, the amount they accrue for later. They are just not thinking about it.” She believes pension funds and insurers should inform their participants better. The same applies to employers: “Employers could, for example, provide an explanation during important moments in their employee’s lives. As soon as they start living together or get a divorce, are fired from work, fall ill for a longer period of time or become incapacitated for work, just to name a few. These are all events that may have an impact on your pension payment. Those employees should be made aware of it in a timely manner. But that happens all too infrequently in my opinion.”
Top 3 of complaints
The Ombudsman Pensions receives more than 900 pension complaints on an annual basis. De Lange handles about 20 percent of those complaints, the rest of the complainants appear to be helped with a proper explanation or first have to go through the complaints procedure at their fund or insurer. If that does not result in a solution, they can still turn to the Ombudsman Pensions. What is the subject De Lange receives most complaints about? She lists her top 3: “Uncertainty about the pension amount, about the partner pension and about pension accrual in case of incapacity for work.”
Still, after 25 years, the Ombudsman Pensions is not known to many people. Could that be because there were no complaints? Or because the problems were already solved by the pension fund or the provider? “No, I wished that was true”, De Lange says distinctly. “The pension funds, insurers and providers should improve in explaining to their participants the way in which their complaints procedure works. And the time at which someone is able to turn to the Ombudsman Pensions for help. That still happens all too infrequently. I gave an interview to the magazine Plus recently. Immediately thereafter, I received several responses from readers. Nobody listened to their pension complaint; they ensured me they ‘unfortunately never heard of an Ombudsman Pensions’. Otherwise they would have come to me.”
De Lange has the possibility to publish her advice if a pension fund or insurer was wrong in her opinion and did not take any action. Apparently that works as she never had to do this: “There is not a single party in the pension industry who likes to attract such publicity.” Also new is that she is the first Ombudsman able to investigate.
Legally correct, but poor communication
How is De Lange fulfilling her role as Ombudsman Pensions? “I am not purely here for the employee or the pensioner, but I am trying to help parties find a reasonable solution. This means I am not an advocate, but I am looking at individual complaints as an independent mediator. I am also trying to indicate to the industry what they should improve. A pension fund often is legally right but didn’t act clearly or reasonably. Or they failed in their communication towards the participant. I will then ask if it is possible to meet the complainant halfway. With a gesture or financial assistance. Some pension funds stick to their views and argue: you are not entitled to anything if it is not included in our regulations. But some other pension funds actually listen to De Lange: “The latter pay a damage amount even though they were legally correct, but admit they communicated awkwardly.”
- Complaints about the execution
The reason to establish the Ombudsman Pensions in 1995, was a green paper of the European Commission. That green paper elaborated on the way in which consumers’ disputes, also with regard to pensions, could be solved better. This led to the birth of an Ombudsman Pensions in some countries: an independent party handling complaints and disputes about the execution of pension regulations. The Ombudsman Pensions does not handle complaints about the contents of a pension regulation but only examines the execution of that regulation.